When Airlines Get Nasty, Travelers Get Crafty

While sophisticated computer models have allowed the airlines to reduce their reliance on overbooking in recent years, they've resorted to more aggressive overbooking as the economy has floundered, choosing to risk higher compensation costs and negative public relations in order to keep planes flying as full as possible.

The DOT reports that involuntary denied boarding—the worst-case result of overbooking—increased by 8.4 percent between 2007 and 2009, to 69,234 unlucky flyers, while the number of passengers flying only increased 1.8 percent.

The number of passengers bumped per thousand boardings—both voluntarily and involuntarily—increased by 6.4 percent, to about 1.2 passengers, over that same period. That's the highest rate since 1996.

What to do - Fly early in the day. That way, if you're bumped, you have a better chance of getting on a later flight that same day. Check in early. When a flight is oversold, the airline uses check-in times among other criteria to choose bumpees.

Want a Blanket With That?

The run-up in fees is perhaps the most visible and widely decried side effect of the airlines' financial woes, and the most direct link between the airlines' funk and their passengers' misery.

United, for example, reported ancillary revenues (the current industry term for baggage fees and the like) of approximately $1.1 billion, a $141 million increase from 2008. That's more than a billion dollars that wasn't included in the ticket prices displayed in bold type in the airline's advertising headlines, that nevertheless came out of consumers' pockets.

While the airlines self-justify the a-la-carte approach to pricing (you get what you pay for), consumers grumble about "nuisance fees" and complain of pricing "surprises" when the total ticket cost is finally displayed.

What to do - To avoid sticker shock, factor in all pertinent fees when comparison-shopping. And while fees have become a fact of travel life, some airlines are worse than others (such as Spirit, which just announced a fee to carry a bag onboard), and some are markedly better (Southwest).

The Lesser Rewards of Loyalty

The same profit-maximizing logic accounts for the airlines' increased stinginess in making seats available to members of their loyalty programs trying to redeem their miles for free trips.

American, which has been an industry leader in the loyalty area and operated the largest program until the Delta-Northwest merger, gave away 5.2 million one-way travel awards in 2009, around 1 million fewer than in 2008. It would be one thing if the decreases were just in the absolute numbers of award travelers, but they're not. Award travelers represented 8.9 percent of American's boarded passengers in 2009, down significantly from 9.7 percent the previous year.

A similar story played out at United, which reported a decrease from 2.3 million Mileage Plus awards in 2008 to 2.1 million in 2009, and a decrease in award travelers from 9.1 percent of the carrier's passengers in 2008 to 8.3 percent in 2009.

At Southwest, 2.4 million awards were issued in 2009, down from 2.8 million in 2008. In 2009, award travelers represented 7.7 percent of the company's passengers, down from 8.3 percent in 2008.

And at US Airways, the number of awards fell from 0.9 million in 2008 to 0.8 million in 2009, although awards as a percentage of total passengers remained flat at about 4 percent.

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