United raises ticket change fees by $50, others follow

MIA 033United Airlines has quietly increased the fees it charges for voluntary changes on tickets for travel within North America, and between North and Central America by $50 to $200. The change took effect on April 18, according to an internal company advisory sent to employees.

The decision makes United the airline with the highest change fees in the affected markets. Other major legacy U.S. carriers, such as American, Delta and US Airways, still charge $150, and smaller airlines like Frontier and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska Airlines’ change fees are $75 online and $100 by phone. Those fees, which Southwest Airlines proudly spares its customers, are in addition to any fare differences. Changing the most expensive — or full-fare — tickets doesn’t incur penalties on any airline.

The United fee increase, coming just a week after the carrier was named worst in customer service in a national ranking tracking airline performance, is certain to anger United fliers even further. Industry watchers will be monitoring very closely whether other airlines follow suit — that has been the trend historically, though customer backlash and social media outrage have forced carriers, including United, to reverse controversial decisions in recent years…

American tries to entice top United fliers

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer…

Did United choose the best rez system?

The decision by United Airlines’ management to use Continental’s Shares reservations system for the merged carrier has been causing serious problems since its implementation last weekend. So the news that the airline is working on a new version of its IT platform, integrating some of the features of the pre-merger United’s Apollo system, is very welcome, indeed.

It was hardly surprising that CEO Jeff Smisek and his team chose to keep Shares, given that most policies and practices of the combined carrier have followed the way Continental did business under Smisek. But in this case, the decision made good financial sense — Continental has owned Shares for years, while United paid Travelport, the company that owns Apollo…

How much slack do the airlines deserve?

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks this week reminded me of how much can go wrong in the airline industry to no fault of its own. Despite everything outside the airlines’ control, there are many reasons to criticize their performance. But how much slack should we cut them?

I’ve written several times about the increased scrutiny of the airlines by both the media and the public, compared to other industries, simply because of the nature of their business. A commercial carrier has more front-line employees than almost any other company, and it’s easier to complain about a person we see in front of us than about an invisible — and sometimes anonymous — representative…

DOT cracks down on airfare advertising

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) seems semi-serious about false airfare advertising. It fined several airlines this week for violating its rules of disclosing taxes and fees, but it still tolerates the disgraceful “one way based on a required round-trip purchase” manipulation practiced by some carriers.

Continental Airlines was fined $120,000 for failing to include fuel surcharges in fares listed on its website. US Airways and TACA, the Central American company, must pay $45,000 and $55,000, respectively, for the same wrongdoing — indicating that fares didn’t include taxes and surcharges, but not disclosing actual amounts…

Airlines, want better GDS model? Unite!

One by one, airlines are waking up to the sobering reality of the modern Global Distribution System (GDS) model, which they created decades ago. Two carriers have now taken legal action, and this is only the beginning. If more airlines want to see changes and lower costs, they should join forces instead of watching from the sidelines.

Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York is about to become an expert on airline data distribution — in the 82nd year of her life. You can see her name stamped on a complaint (pictured above) filed last week by US Airways against Sabre, the largest GDS in the United States…

US Airways denies StarNet blocking

US Airways has denied recent suspicion that it has begun to block award seats made available by its Star Alliance partners for mileage redemption by members of its Dividend Miles program — a practice pioneered by United Airlines, which I first exposed in 2008.

The airline has been silent on the issue since reports about apparent blocking surfaced last fall. Many travelers said they found award inventory on various Star carriers, using one or more of the publicly available sources — the websites of All Nippon Airways, Continental Airlines and Air Canada — but US Airways agents were unable to see those available seats…

U.S. carriers tighten routing rules

Do you sometimes prefer making a connection or two instead of taking a nonstop flight, either to save money or rack up more frequent-flier miles? You might have to change your ways. Domestic U.S. transfers are now allowed much less frequently than before, and making connections on flights between an airline’s hubs is almost impossible.

No big deal, you might say. Wouldn’t any reasonable person choose a nonstop any time? Not necessarily. Different travelers have different priorities — some would rather save time, others money. But the best thing about the previous practice was that passengers had options. Now, that’s no longer the case…

Predicting flight delays and cancellations

Are you one of those travelers who wait until they get to the airport to find out that their flight has been delayed or canceled? It’s time to become a proactive flier and learn how to predict disruptions, so you can get rebooked before anyone else on your flight, with a minimum impact on your travel plans.

Although there is no guarantee that your prediction success rate will be 100 percent, because airlines often swap aircraft, the method I’ve adopted works most of the time. It’s actually rather simple: I track the planes assigned to my flights by matching arrival and departure gates. Continental Airlines makes it even easier by providing the most advanced data in the industry, but more on that later…

DOT should ban fictitious flights

Did you know that hundreds of fictitious flights inhabit airline schedules every day? They don’t exist in real life — just on paper. They are meant to make more money for the airlines by tricking customers and perverting a practice that was actually started to help travelers. In fact, they spell nothing but trouble for passengers.

Those fictitious flights are labeled “direct” by the airlines, which years ago decided to rewrite the dictionary and use that term for flights that weren’t nonstop but made at least one stop on the way to their destination. First, those flights were operated by the same aircraft, but later a “plane change” was introduced. The Department of Transportation has allowed the airlines to abuse the practice any way they like…