Why new United should have domestic business — not first — class

One of the big questions of the United-Continental merger is whether the domestic premium cabin will be sold as first class, as is currently the case with United, or business class, which is what Continental does. For customers’ sake, that cabin should be sold as business class.

This is not just about a name — it affects booking classes and flight inventory, and the present discrepancies between domestic and international flights can be very confusing for passengers, and sometimes even for agents. The domestic first-class designation is a tradition started decades ago, when all commercial planes had two cabins of service. But then along came business class, and the major network carriers ended up with three cabins on international flights…

Talking air travel for an hour on NPR

Air travel is one of those topics that no radio or TV show can go wrong with — it’s certain to touch a nerve with many people and provoke numerous comments and questions. That’s what happened yesterday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, which I was on for the first time.

I always thought the reason to be invited would be to talk about foreign policy on the Friday news roundup, where Diane has three Washington journalists discussing issues from the passing week. That never happened, but a couple of weeks ago I suggested to one of the show’s producers that the summer is a good time for a program on travel…

US Airways hears feedback, fixes website

US Airways has set a good example of listening to customer feedback and fixing a problem. In my case, there was added criticism in a newspaper column, but instead of complaining, the airline rolled up sleeves and started working.

In March, I wrote in my Washington Times column about its website’s inability to display many itineraries, even when booked directly with US Airways. At the time, spokeswoman Valerie Wunder at the company’s headquarters in Phoenix arranged a conference call with two in-house experts, who told me that the reason for the glitch was the site’s failure to recognize some foreign airport codes…

Who gets first meal choice on board?

Meal choices in first and business class are hardly a concern for most air travelers, who have much more basic things to worry about these days, such as never-ending extra fees. Still, premium fliers are essential for an airline’s well-being, and they have certain expectations from the product they pay for.

It’s true that many passengers end up in the front cabins — especially on domestic U.S. flights — thanks to free upgrades, but they get them because of their loyalty to the respective carrier. Of course, there are also people who pay to sit up front — as few as they may be — so those cabins deserve serious attention…

U.S. airlines handle disruptions best

How many times have you been jerked around at an airport and made to wait in several long lines after a flight delay or cancellation forced a change to the rest of your itinerary? Chances are, that happened abroad. For all their faults, U.S. airlines handle irregular operations better than their foreign peers.

I’ve always wondered why airport agents in the United States — whether at check-in counters, gates or even business lounges — can do almost anything a passenger needs, including rebooking, rerouting and reissuing tickets, while agents in other countries are much more specialized, and thus less helpful…

US Airways’ website fails at basics

This was supposed to be a column critical of US Airways’ rather peculiar Web site, which is unable to perform basic functions, such as retrieving valid and active tickets. But it also became an appreciation of the carrier’s willingness to explain some of those issues and even try to resolve them.

Every airline’s Web site has limitations and various quirks that annoy travelers — some offer odd routings when you search for flights, others show confusing or even misleading prices, and yet others try to get you to buy things you don’t need instead of taking you straight to the final purchase page…

Customers gain sway over airlines

If you thought complaints about a policy of your preferred airline would fall on deaf ears, last week proved you wrong. As travel companies struggle to survive the economic crisis, they are increasingly listening to their most loyal customers.

As I reported in this column, United Airlines announced last month that it soon would end advance domestic upgrades, which could be confirmed using electronic certificates top elite travelers get if they fly at least 10,000 miles per quarter. Though United tried to mask that huge loss for its best customers with the promise of automatic “free upgrades” if space in first or business class is still available a couple of days before a flight, the outcry against the new policy was overwhelming…

Continental shows new transparency

As Washington policymakers continue to question the value of global airline alliances, Continental Airlines has shown them a benefit they most likely never suspected: increasing the transparency of sensitive data tightly held by many carriers.

That may not have been what Continental set out to do, but it’s a positive side effect. The very day it officially joined the Star Alliance last week, it uploaded on its Web site “award” seats made available by other alliance members, which its customers can book using Continental frequent-flier miles. It took “nine months of planning and implementation”…

Airlines try to unload frequent-flier miles

Is the airline industry having a change of heart about the way it lets you spend your frequent-flier miles? After years of making mileage redemption difficult by limiting seats and adding steep fees for “free” tickets, the first signs are now emerging of some carriers’ realization that those policies may be backfiring.

Not only have they alienated customers, but they appear to have weighed heavily on the airlines’ books, in which unused miles are a major liability. United Airlines, in particular, seems to really want you to burn your miles. After discounting domestic and European mileage tickets this year, it became the first major carrier last week to eliminate “close-in fees” of up to $100 for booking an “award” less than 21 days before travel…

Rebook flights at no cost

Are you planning to postpone a trip you’ve booked to Mexico because of the swine flu? By now, you’ve probably heard about airlines waiving fees to change your flight. But do you know how to rebook a flight to make sure you avoid any extra costs?

The waivers issued last week, as the State Department advised Americans to delay travel to Mexico if possible, are not much different from waivers related to bad weather and published regularly throughout the year. They usually allow passengers who have already begun their journey to reschedule their return — and fly back home later, until a storm passes, or earlier, if you happen to be in Mexico right now — without having to pay the normal reissue fee…