Are completely deregulated airlines the answer?

Some of this is almost enough to make me vote for the party that wants to regulate things and control business…..

We watch the news every year around Christmas/New Years and see the snow storms, cancelled flights with stranded travellers and wonder why they travel at that time of year. But then, both my sons have flown in the last week; one from Tennessee to PA and the other from PA to IN and back. We did have David for an extra day when his Monday flight to PA was cancelled because of the storm that hit the east coast.

His airline did notify him by email almost a full day in advance that his flight would be cancelled. Notice is good. He called US Air‘s customer service line and was told his wait would be “23 minutes”. Given the thousands of calls, that was not outrageous for the circumstance. While on hold, he got online and rebooked his flight and then had the customer service worker confirm that he had completed the transaction correctly.

A friend of his, home from New York, could find no such rebooking option for her airline. Neither did she have a number to call as a result of the storm. Her plan was to travel to the Fort Wayne airport the next day to talk to someone from Continental.

When reading off the number of flight cancellations, Delta had 3-4 times what the other carriers did. Unfortunately, some of those passengers with cancelled Tuesday flights couldn’t get a rescheduled flight until Saturday (that’s next YEAR!).

Son David has flown recently from PA to Hawaii and back and within the past few years has travelled to Europe, Africa and South America….and he just landed in Venice, Italy for New Years.

While home he told us some of what is happening, and especially what is changing …. some of his highlights are included below:

Charging for baggage. A recent newscast reported that the Airlines have PROFITED $2 Billion in the past year on just the baggage fees charged. For his Christmas trip home, David brought a small carry on size suitcase that he checked (because he had a backpack which he took onto the plane). His fee was just $25 … but that was his only checked bag. Some are charging a higher amount for the 2nd bag. His complaint about US Air’s policy was that all bags are charged the same fee…. which would encourage people to pack one super heavy gigantic bag … and that HIS fee should be the same as theirs.

Southwest’s strategy of “Bags Fly Free” works for me.

The Price of FREE miles. When David went off to college 700 miles away, I signed up for a Delta Skymiles American Express Card so I could earn points with the idea of flying him home 1-2x per year. I would use that card to make some of my company’s business purchases to rack up the miles. A round trip ticket cost 25,000 “miles”. The good thing about that was that he could fly in/out of Fort Wayne so we made two 30-miles (vs 230) to get him. But Delta started changing the game. Skymile flights were at inconvenient times. Then they started raising the price. Instead of 25,000 points, flights could cost 30-40,000, making it more difficult to get the free trips. Then we had to schedule three weeks in advance instead of the two we started with. After an especially disastrous trip that took him and extra day and cost a hotel room due to seemingly random rescheduling of his “free” seat, I cancelled my AMEX card.

No free snacks / food. Historically, on short trips passengers would get bags of snacks (nuts/pretzels) and on longer flights would get a plated meal that might include a sandwich, some chips and a couple cookies or such. On his recent 6-hr flight, David paid $9 for a turkey sandwich that he said was of poor quality/taste. You can still get those bags of nuts or pretzels for about $5.

My suggestion would be to get your food in the airport terminal and take it on the plane with you. The food is better, the prices are better and you control what you get.

Assigned seats replaced with loading ‘zones’ and upcharges. Even if you have an assigned seat, often times your ticket will have a zone number on it, and the boarding process involves lining up along the zone signs. Zone 1 boards first, then zone 2, etc. If there are no assigned seats, those who board first get the seats they want and have plenty of room to put their overhead luggage over THEIR seat….. and those who load later have issues. Even with an assigned seat, the problem with zone loading is that the overhead compartment space gets used up early. You can have an assigned seat in row 4, for example, but can’t find a spot overhead until row 8+. That makes for amazing traffic jams — especially when trying to deplane and you’re trying to go back in the plane to get your carry-on.

BUT…you can pay an UPCHARGE FEE to get a better zone.

Other “UPCHARGE” options.

  • Life insurance. This one has been around for a while. Nothing so encouraging as adding a last minute life insurance policy in case YOUR PLANE CRASHES!
  • First or Business class. On some airlines, First Class (less PC) is being renamed Business Class.
  • Stand By. Used to be that you could try to get onto a “full” flight by waiting in the boarding area for a last minute seat available because someone didn’t show. But now, some airlines are charging as much as $150 to stand by — or to change your reservation.
  • Flight cancellation / Priority Consideration. When David’s flight to Philly was cancelled, he was able to reschedule for no additional charge if he could wait til the next day to fly. If he wanted to fly later that same evening, upcharges were $150, $400 and even $1000 — depending on the flight selected.
  • Booking with a human. If you need help booking your flight, you can get it, but you will pay for it. When I had a Delta AMEX card, I was charged an extra $10 to go through a person.
  • Quick trips. For a long time, the way to get the best fares has been to book well in advance. Delta required 3 weeks for me to use Skymiles. Get under two weeks and the price jumps drastically. And those who need to “get the next plane out of Washington” pay absolute premium price.
  • Refundable / Change-able. Even if you pay extra for the ability to change a ticket, you will still pay a change fee (often $50+). If you buy the cheap ticket and can’t go on the selected date, YOU LOSE.
  • Movie headphones. Not a new upcharge….this one has been around for a while. On longer flights and larger planes, they will sometimes show a movie. You can WATCH the screen, but if you want to hear what is going on, you must pay $4-6 to “rent” the headphones.
  • Alcohol-based drinks. Also not new — and I support this one.
  • Convenience. Want non-stop (ca-ching). Don’t want to fly at 6am? Ca-ching. Want to fly on a Sunday evening, Monday morning or Friday afternoon (when the business travellers are) … you’ll pay more.
  • Pillows & Blankets. I have never used either, but have read that some are now paying for either of those conveniences.

Did unrestrained competition and complete free enterprise do this? Do the airlines go to battle on the ticket price and then make up for those low fares by charging for what used to be free service?

As I finish this post, I am watching a news story about how the airlines are using Twitter to help airport stranded passengers find and book alternative flights. So maybe there is still some customer service happening…. but I’m not looking for a ticket at the moment.

Safe travels.

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