When Airlines Get Nasty, Travelers Get Crafty

What to do - Be flexible on dates and times when booking awards. If no award flights are available on the airline's website, call the airline's reservations center. A customer service agent can often find seats that aren't offered for booking online, or devise an itinerary that circumvents award bottlenecks. While there may be a fee to book by phone, it's worth it if it makes the difference between using miles and paying cash.

Elite Perks, Downgraded

Further undermining the loyalty effect of the airlines' mileage programs has been the dilution of elite benefits.

During 2009, the larger airlines offered double elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) for no less than six months. Even with the falloff in travel, those extra EQMs must have swelled the ranks of elite-status flyers, thereby intensifying competition for upgrades to first class, even as the supply of first-class seats has been pared back.

What to do - The surest way to increase the odds of snagging an elite upgrade is to upgrade your elite status, from entry-level elite to mid-tier status, or to top-tier status. To do so, however, will require logging at least 50,000 or 75,000 EQMs on the host airline or its closest airline partners.

Pretzels, Everyone?

If airline food was really as bad as some suggest, its absence might be considered a blessing.

But flyers still wax nostalgic for those leaden slabs of cannelloni, apparently unironic Laughing Cow cheese wedges, and stale Ritz crackers that not so long ago were included in the price of an airline ticket.

Whatever its virtues, real or imagined, when Continental's new policy takes effect this fall, complimentary meal service on coach flights within the continental U.S. will go the way of onboard piano bars and miniskirted flight attendants.

What to do - Although some airlines sell meals or snacks on longer flights, you're better off, financially and nutritionally, bringing a sandwich from home or grabbing a to-go meal from an airport restaurant.

Nastiness, No Sure Recipe for Profitability

Of course, this isn't a just case of mean-spirited corporate goliaths gleefully beating up on their defenseless customers.

The moves are driven by financial desperation, as profit-starved companies do whatever it takes to maximize revenue in the short term, never mind the long-term consequences.

It's worth pointing out, however, that the airline that has remained the most resolutely customer-friendly in its strategy and tactics, Southwest, has also posted the best financial performance during these fraught times.

In fairness to the mainline carriers, Southwest never promised anything more than a bag of pretzels and a Coke, so there was no meal service to offload. But fees remain minimal, in spite of the potential windfall, a fact the airline justly self-promotes in its advertising. And the discounter ranked a respectable 6th out of 19 airlines in the DOT's overbooking list (lower is better).

What to do - As consumers, we get to vote on how much airlines profit from our business, and even whether they survive. Vote for the good guys.

The Outlook: Slow Gain, More Pain

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