June 8, 2012 -- It's easy to buy into this after years of brainwashing about the "friendly skies" (United) or how "we really move our tail for you" (Continental) or JetBlue's latest campaign ("We'll give you the best fare and throw in a little thing called humanity") but - the airlines do not love us.
They don't hate us, either. They just don't care. Let me rephrase that: they care if we leave them! It is a business, nothing more, nothing less. The rest is marketing and the sooner we accept this, the easier it is to get on with the business of finding the cheapest and most convenient flights, which can vary from carrier to carrier, from day to day.
So don't look for LUV (sorry, Southwest), but you can at least buy some affection - and comfort - with preferred seating and the like, and do cultivate loyalty since elite status in miles programs can pay off in free bags and more. Now, about those other lies…
7 Lies of Air Travel
1. Fees are optional
The word "optional" has replaced the word "free" over the past four year. Delta now touts "optional products and fees" while US Airways invites you to check out its "optional service fees" but it all comes down the same thing: freebies of the past now come with a price tag. Yet how optional are some of these things? If you need a suitcase and neither of the free bag airlines is going your way (JetBlue or Southwest), you will pay a bag fee. If you fly Spirit or Allegiant, you'll pay no matter what since they also charge for carry-ons. Where's the option?
2. Families are special
I think families are special, having one of my own, but the airlines would seem to disagree. I've written about how fewer airlines are offering early boarding options for families - United is just the latest to join the crowd - plus if you assume families like sitting together, that's getting trickier, too, what with airlines setting aside more and more seats for valued customers - business flyers and other big spenders.
Solution for seating: place your cranky toddler in his assigned middle seat, and watch how fast his seatmates beg you to take their places. But be sure your child isn't too cranky; on a recent Alaska Airlines flight when a dad couldn't get his irritable 3-year-old's seatbelt fastened quickly enough, the pilot kicked them off the plane.
3. You're not too-fat-to-fly if you can lower the armrests
A lot of people believe this one, but it's not necessarily so; yes, the Southwest website says, "The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats" but if you read on you'll find a caveat about encroaching upon your seatmate's space. A woman named Kenlie Tiggeman who was kicked off a Southwest flight for supposedly being too big for her seat is suing Southwest, not for money, but for clarification of its seating policies. I think most airline "customer of size" policies could use some tweaking.
4. Kids and elderly can keep shoes on at security
Not to dump on the TSA (they get plenty of that without my help), but travelers need to understand that new guidelines for kids 12 and under and older folks are just that, guidelines. As always, the on-site security officer makes the final call and if he says your child or grandma has to take their shoes off, off they must come or there's going to be a problem and at best a delay. By the way, the revised procedures for passengers aged 75 and older are in place at only a few airports so far, meaning those Nikes will have to come off at most checkpoints anyway.
5. Airline XYZ offers the lowest fare
Most airlines say they've got the best prices, and some - like American - even offer a guarantee. Read the fine print when you have a few hours; the legal restrictions on American Airlines' "Lowest Price Guarantee" run a stupefying 1,078 words long.
Here's the straight story: almost any airline can have the lowest price at any given moment. The best way to find out is to compare prices. Smart consumers know the sweet spot is Tuesday afternoon, after airlines sales have been launched and competing carriers match the newly-discounted prices.
6. Contents of lost bags are covered for up to $3,300
Indeed they are, thanks to the Dept. of Transportation; however, airlines can and do say, "don't pack this or that because we won't cover it" and guess what? These exclusions include most valuables. On Alaska Airlines, for example, you can fill your suitcase with jewelry, furs, cameras, binoculars, electronics or even eyeglasses, medication, cash or keys - but if any of it gets lost, you get zip.
If you must take any of valuables, put them in a carry-on, or better yet, on your person.
7. Trip insurance will get you a full refund
It depends on the policy, but most don't cover everything. Here are just some of the exclusions listed for a "travel refund" policy issued by a company doing business with American Airlines: natural disasters like hurricanes, fire or flood; epidemics or pandemics; terrorist events; the airline goes bust; you engage in risky behavior such as bungee jumping or skydiving; abuse of alcohol, and the list goes on and on. When it comes to the fine print, read it over and over again.
Did I call these lies? Well, since this is an election year, let's use a nicer name: air travel spin. Don't you get snookered.