Planning Guide

Things Your Airline Won't Tell You

1.    "Welcome to the Crowded Skies"

Airline TicketsIf you have traveled much lately you must have noticed that when traveling by plane you often feel like being on the subway in a rush hour. The airlines have become more efficient and they try to have more people on the planes. As a result, more fliers get bumped. It is a standard practice of airlines to overbook flights to compensate for last-minute cancellations. But as not many seats are available for later flights fewer and fewer passengers are willing to get bumped. According to the report revealed by the Department of Transportation, the number of involuntarily bumped passengers increased 44 percent between the first nine month of 2005 and the same period in 2007.

The good news is that the airlines are required to get involuntarily bumped passengers to their destination within four hours from their expected arrival time or pay them up to $400. The bad news is that the problem of overbooked flights still exists and the airlines are now trying to develop advanced computer systems that will help them rebook bumped fliers. 

2.    "Your Hard-Won Air Miles Are Worth Less All the Time"

There are so many ways you can accrue your air miles. Apart from traveling much, you can get them when you use your credit card or get a mortgage. For example, American Airlines sells their miles to many "mileage partners" and its frequent-flier program has become a significant revenue center. In fact, in 2006 the United Airline's Mileage Plus plan earned the company $600 million. 

But as there are so many air miles around it is becoming more and more difficult to use them as some airlines have decreased the shelf life of air miles. Other airlines have increased the amount required for getting an upgrade. Customers can keep their account current if they use a credit card affiliated with the program and will earn miles when they shop. To keep your account active you may redeem a small amount of miles on magazine subscription, for example.

3.    "We'll Give You a Great Deal if We Can Benefit from It"

Occasionally, airlines can offer great deals and the first thing you should check when looking for discounts (whether it is several dollars off or 25 percent off or more) is airline's own website. Another source of discounted tickets is travel sites, such as Travelocity and Expedia. 

Now the airline industry has a new trend which was started by Southwest. In 2005 Southwest launched Ding, a computer application that regularly scans for the cheapest fares and sends updates to the customers. As a result, Southwest has acquired many loyal customers who do travel a lot. Recently American has introduced similar service called DealFinder that offers big savings on flights.

4.    "We Love Hidden Fees"

To offset the increased cost of fuel most airlines charge additional fees. As a result the listed ticket price remains competitive but extra costs are passed on the travelers usually at the end of the booking process when buyers are less inclined to change their mind. Typically most airlines have fuel surcharge which runs from $5 to $25 and more (Southwest doesn't charge it). Northwest charges approximately $15 if the traveler prefers to seat in an exit row while United charges around $25 each way for checking the second bag. Allegiant, a small airline even charges for booking tickets online. Frequent flier programs which promise "free flights" have also added the fees for booking too close to your travel date.

5.    "Customer Service Isn't Always Our Priority…"

Some customers had very frustrating experience when traveling by air. One customer, for example, tried to fly from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Florida and arrived at the airport to find out that his flight was cancelled and the next flight is only the following day. Naturally he got very annoyed as the airline had his phone number in the computer and they didn't bother to call. Some customers even started fighting for their rights. After being delayed on the tarmac for nine hours in 2006, Kate Hunni organized a group that pushed New York State to pass a law according to which the passengers stuck on a plane for three hours or more should have access to restrooms, food and water, and fresh air.

Nowadays more and more customers complain that airline companies provide poor service. But David Castelveter, spokesperson for the Air Transport Association, says that customers often get upset about the problems which have nothing to do with customer service as there are other factors to blame.

6.    "…Unless You Have a Lot of Miles".

While many customers may feel annoyed by the airline's policies, heavy travelers who often travel on business and buy the most expensive tickets have no grounds to complain about poor customer service. In fact, these favored customers always receive white-glove service: they get the first crack at upgrades, their calls are answered at first ring and they often get special bonus-mile offers and free upgrades. In addition, they can have first-class check-in with shorter lines through security and early boarding. For example, customers who joined United's top-tier membership program find it much easier to redeem their frequent-flyer miles and often may have seats in the exit row meaning that they don't have to pay for upgrades to business class.

7.    "Our Planes Are Ancient".

After the industry's near collapse in 2001, American airlines stopped buying new planes. While airline passengers in Europe enjoy seat-back entertainment like movies on demand and videogames, in most cases Americans can only count on pull-down screens which are still very common in the U.S. 

Today, the U.S. commercial jets that average 12 years are rather old and inefficient. The oldest planes which average 17 years are with Northwest whereas the newest ones with the average age of three years old belong to JetBlue and AirTram. It doesn't mean that they are not safe as they are maintained to high safety standards, but we can't deny the fact that old aircraft are less comfortable for passengers. Besides they can often be delayed because of last-minute mechanical problems and they do consume too much fuel. And the situation is not going to improve as most airlines either ordered few new planes or didn't order them at all.

8.    "Even We Don't Understand Our Pricing"

Typically there are three types of tickets: first class, business class and economy. But there are more than 200 different price points for seats on each plane. What accounts for such diversity? Apart from such evident costs as fuel and labor, the biggest determinant of the ticket price is the competition. Airlines regularly keep track of one another's fares and then try to figure out how many business travelers who pay a premium rate for flexible tickets are going to book a flight. If a lot of business travelers fly a particular route the airline tickets may remain quite expensive as they can always be booked last-minute. Every time the seat is sold the price of others change and domestic fares can fluctuate up to three times a day. 

But if the number of business travelers is small, prices tend to decrease as the time of the flight gets closer. In case the air fare drops by the time your flight leaves many airlines, including Alaska, United and Southwest will offer you a voucher for the difference without deducting a fee.

9.    "We're at the Mercy of "Leave It to Beaver"- Era Technology"

The number of airline passengers in the U.S. has increased but most of technologies responsible for air-traffic control have not been upgraded since 1950s. And the problem is that these technologies aren't efficient. Across the country the plane routes are planned on a series of highways in the sky, with minimum 5 miles of space apart for safety. And as radar pinpoints planes only every 12 seconds, the exact plane location is unknown. 

Airlines would like to replace the old system by a new one based on GPS technology to lessen congestion. The sticking point is how to fund such upgrade: Congress hasn't made a decision yet.

10.    "You'll Wait Because the System Is Broken"

    The year 2007 was the worst for airline travelers as only 77 percent of flights arrived on time and 76 percent departed on time. And not only the antiquated air-traffic-control system was responsible for these delays. The problem is that as a rule airlines schedule more flights into a given time slot than they can really handle. For example, New York's JFK airport has room for 32-52 flights from 8 till 9 a.m. but the airlines used to schedule 57 flights which naturally caused huge delays. O'Hare, Newark and LaGuardia encountered the same problems. Then add bad weather and the delays increase tremendously and spread across the country. 

Las year the Federal Aviation Administration capped flights going in and out of JFK at 83 during peak hours instead of 100. But the carriers seek improvements in air-traffic-control system as well hoping to increase capacity at airports. The problem of delays is very serious and complex. The experts think that capping the number of flights won't solve the problem as many corporate jets take off and land at small airports whenever they want to, increasing delays.

Things to Do

  1. Check airline's own websites for the biggest discounts on flights.
  2. To keep track of air travel discounts sign up with www.airfarewatchdog.com to receive free e-mails when prices drop on the selected routes.
  3.  To be aware of the hidden fees the airline may charge you check FareCompare.com for the detailed information.
  4. Digital luggage scales offered by Balanzza.com for approximately $25 will save you from paying overweight fees if your luggage weighs more than 50 pounds.