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Between Helen and Earth

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Friday, December 18, 2009

In all our travels, we've had the displeasure of sitting next to some real characters. There was the exhibitionist stretcher (ew), the drooler, the cranky drunk, the gassy sleeper, the person who may or may not have been smuggling a six pack of onions under his arms, the person who splashed on gallons of Drakkar Noir before leaving home, rude ones, loud ones, you name it. But overall, interactions with our fellow passengers is pretty limited. And that's fine by us. Flight attendants on the other hand? They have to interact. With everybody! If your seatmate, Mr Onion-pits, has a complete meltdown over being served ice cubes vs. crushed ice, or the drooler keeps sneaking phone calls during take off, it's the flight attendant who has to step in and deal. So, hats off to you, flight attendants of the world, for putting up with us passengers and all of our potentially annoying travel habits. If our work day consisted of trying to convince a grab bag of personality types to check their way-too-big carry-ons instead of clogging the aisle and stuffing the overhead, well, we would probably snap. And apparently, sometimes, some do snap. Do you already know where we're going with this? If not, there was a bit of a fiasco on an American Airlines flight involving a passenger seated in Business, a glass of orange juice, and a flight attendant by the name of Helen. Helen was not having this gentleman's request for an orange juice, things escalated, meal trays were pointedly slammed, and the feds were phoned. If you haven't already, do check out the full story in juicy detail over at Consumerist.

What about you? Have you had a similar encounter with someone so gruff and frazzled while flying? And is there a danger of this becoming the norm, as airlines cut back service and remaining employees are spread thin to cover fewer but fuller flights? Share your stories and comments below.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News


Are fares as high as they could be? Not even close!

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Here's a sentiment shared by puh-lenty of airline professionals, and one that made it into conversation over Thanksgiving dinner: "If you don't want to pay what it's worth, then stop whining about air travel." Think that's harsh, or do they have a point? Airlines aren't exactly raking in the dough these days, even after scrambling to stay afloat by cutting service, laying off workers, tacking on fees, and keeping frills to an absolute bare minimum. When you think about it, really, fares aren't as high as they could be. How's that? Our very own George Hobica breaks it down for you in his recent memo to airline passengers.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

AirTran pulling out of Charleston, SC

Posted by George Hobica on Thursday, October 29, 2009

You can expect to pay higher fares for sure if flying into or out of Charleston after Dec. 3. We're surprised that they didn't at least fly through the busier Christmas period. Airtran is reported to have carried up to 80% of traffic in and out of the city thanks to its low fares, typically as low as $39 each way to Atlanta.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

What will 2010 bring to the airline business?

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A lot depends on where oil prices are headed, and if we knew that for certain, we'd be oil futures traders and make a ton of money. But we're not and we don't.
Airline fees
Will we see more of them? Some weaker airlines might have folded by now without them. We wouldn't be surprised to see some inventive new ones, such as:
1) a small discount if you book with the airline's credit card (aka a fee if you don't), 
2) a fee for checking in at the airport with a real live human (as opposed to getting your boarding pass at home or from a kiosk) a la Ryanair
3) a fee for lap children (they already pay 10% of the adult fare on international flights)
Airline consolidation and further shrinkage
2006 saw US Air merge with America West, 2009 saw the combination of Northwest and Delta, so who's next? As airlines shrink in size, they become more viable candidates for consolidation (antitrust concerns would pose a problem if United and Continental were to merge at their former sizes since the combined entity would have too large a market share, but at their current and future sizes? It's a more likely. If oil prices spike, we might see a weaker carrier cease flying or at least file for Chapter 11.
As the economy picks up next year and the business traveler comes back, fares may go up. They have to go up if airlines are to survive, but that will mean fewer people traveling on fewer flights, and it will have a negative impact on the travel industry as a whole (hotels, rental cars, attractions...)   If we had to guess, we'd say fares will firm up. It all depends on the economy and if we have more mergers or lose some carriers.
Airlines sell direct
We're seeing an increasing trend of airlines selling fares only on their own web sites with promo codes and special offers.  They're experimenting with new sales channels and keeping their best fares from the aggregators and online travel agencies.
More regulation
2010 will probably be the year we see some kind of passenger rights bill passed. There'll be one more horrific incident like the one in Rochester, MN and that will tip the balance. Or someone will go into a diabetic shock because he couldn't get to his insulin on a marooned aircraft.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Continental joins United in Star Alliance

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"There have been many successful mergers, just not in this business," Larry Kellner, CEO of Continental, is quoted as saying in the Wall St. Journal today. And while Continental isn't merging with United, today it joined United as one of the members of Star Alliance, a network of 23 airlines. This "increases the chance," says the Journal, that the third- and fourth-largest US carriers will "consider a merger down the road."

Also increasing the chance of such a merger, of course, is that both airlines have shrunk, allowing them better to avoid scrutiny from anti-trust enforcers (since the combined entitty wouldn't have as large a market share). This is not to say that a merger will happen, but if it does, it would improve all airlines' pricing power.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Why people aren't flying

Posted by George Hobica on Saturday, October 24, 2009

It's not just high airfares, because really, they're not that high. And it's not just the recession. Read more at

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Will a passenger bill of rights ever fly?

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, October 19, 2009


Airfarewatchdog wonders how many potential airline customers are refusing to fly until they can be assured that they won't be trapped in a cramped airplane parked overnight on a tarmac. Every time another news story appears detailing the suffering of passengers in such situations, with no food or working lavatories, no doubt another few hundred flyers take to their cars and Greyhound.
Talk about negative publicity! So if only to avoid more bad press, you'd think the airlines would be behind two bills currently before the US Congress designed to give airline passengers some peace of mind.
In truth, "only" about US airline 200,000 passengers were stuck on a tarmac for three hours or more in the first half of the year (although this figure doesn't include international flights or those on smaller regional aircraft). The airlines note that this works out to an infinitesimally small percentage considering how many people they fly each year, but tell that to those unfortunate enough to have sat in a cardboard-thin seat surrounded by crying babies for 8 hours, with nothing to eat or drink. And don't use that logic on Kate Hanni, a victim of one of the more celebrated tarmac delays of recent years, and executive director of, the principal advocacy group behind the flyers rights movement. "If the problem is so small," she said at a recent hearing sponsored by her group and the Business Travel Coalition, "then solving it shouldn't be so bad."
The two "passenger rights" bills, HR 624 in the House, and S 213 in the Senate, state that if a flight is "substantially" delayed, the airline must provide "adequate" food and water, "adequate" restroom facilities, cabin ventilation and comfortable cabin temperatures, and access to medical treatment.
After a delay of three hours during which the passengers have been unable to deplane, the airline must provide passengers the option of returning to the terminal if this can be done safely.
But there are some problems here. Most airlines no longer provide food on flights, except for business or first class passengers. So it's not clear how they'll be able to provide nourishment during a long delay. Does Pizza Hut deliver to airport tarmacs? As for returning to the terminal in a "safe" manner, that's a rather substantial loophole. If there are no available gates for a delayed aircraft to use, how will the passengers get off? They can't simply jump out the emergency slides and walk to the terminal.
And if the pilot determines that deplaning would jeopardize passenger safety or security, then no deplaning.
There is no language in the bills specifying what penalties might be assessed for failure to adhere to the proposed regulations. So this could be a bill without bite.
Plus, as the two bills recognize, airports have to be part of the solution. They need to develop operating plans to handle unscheduled deplanings, including a way to safely transport passengers from the tarmac or taxiway to the terminal if no gates are available. Some airports, such as Dallas Ft. Worth, are planning to add buses with mobile stairways to meet planes and carry passengers to terminals. DFW has also designated two terminal gates for unscheduled deplanings. But most airports don't have this equipment, and without a workable plan any passenger rights bill that emerges from Congress may amount to nothing more than good intentions. Airplanes arriving from international destinations that are diverted to airports without customs and immigration facilities propose another issue that must be considered.
Needless to say, the airline industry, and the Airline Transport Association, its trade group, aren't thrilled. They argue that a passenger rights bill will have "unintended consequences," forcing airlines to cancel flights at a time when capacity cuts make it less likely that their customers will find convenient alternatives.
Aircraft that go back to the gate for deplaning lose their place in line for take off, industry insiders note, causing further delays; others argue that this policy should be changed, allowing such aircraft to regain their takeoff priority.
And other industry observers, such as the University of Michigan's Amy Cohn, suggest that tarmac delays are a symptom, not the disease. These delays wouldn't happen so often, they say, if the US air traffic control system weren't stuck in the 1960's. It needs to be modernized so that more aircraft can share limited air space.
Delays could also be reduced if the FAA restricted the number of take offs and landings at the nation's most crowded airports, such as Chicago O'Hare and New York's LaGuardia and JFK. JFK has slots for 81 operations per hour, but averages 126. But who knows: Now that airlines are eliminating flights and parking hundreds of jets in the desert, this problem might just go away.


To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

United offers new bag fee "plan"

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is this because United is desperate to raise some up front cash during one of the worst financial storms in commercial aviation history? For $249 per year, you and seven traveling companions get to check your first and second bags free of charge. Let's do some math: at $15 (paid online) or $20 at the airport for the first bag, and $25 (online) or $30 (airport) for the second bag, someone checking two bags pays $80 round-trip for each flight. So take three 2-bag flights per year, and you've made money. A family for four, each checking one bag, taking three trips (4 x 3 x $30) would save $110. Clearly, if you have elite status in United's MileagePlus program (which you have to be a member of to get this deal), or if you fly business/first, or if you never check bags, then this is not for you.

But if you don't have status and you go to a lot of trade shows lugging your portable display and boxes of brochures, this is for you; if you have a large family that doesn't know how to pack light, it's a deal. Or if you simply travel more 8 times per year and  check just one bag, you'll save money. Or if you travel with two checked bags internationally 3 or more times per year, you'll save on United's $100 round-trip second bag fee for international flights.

Keep in mind that overweight and oversized bags will still incur fees.

United has also come up with other unique money-raising schemes, such "Premier Line" one-time access (with access to priority security lines, priority boarding and check in) and a year of Economy Plus extra legroom seating for $349.We're just wondering if they're launching this new baggage plan to be nice, or if they'd like fees to be prepaid now, when they could really use the cash flow.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Upgrading with Miles a Wild Fare Chase?

Posted by George Hobica on Sunday, October 4, 2009

Using your frequent flier miles to upgrade can be really confusing, impossible or not worthwhile. Confusing because the airlines have different rules, which seem to change at a whim; impossible because often there are no seats available for upgrading on popular routes, even if you plan months ahead; and not worthwhile because airlines often require that you buy one of their more expensive fares to be eligible and, to add to the insult, now levy expensive co-pays of up to $1000 round-trip, plus miles, to sit up front (that's in addition to the other frequent flyer fees they charge). 

Even so, sometimes the effort is worthwhile. Last year, I flew from New York to Los Angeles, and thought it would be pleasant to fly business class on one of United's PS (as in Premium Service) nonstop flights. Searching on, I discovered that these flights carry a premium price: at the time, about $2050 round-trip compared to Delta's $1500 business class fares. But I also discovered that I had 30,000 miles in my MileagePlus account, just enough for a round-trip upgrade, and, using a site called, identified which United flights were eligible for upgrade.
ExpertFlyer (membership starts at $4.99/month) works with several major airlines (regrettably, of the larger US carriers, only American and Delta, and no longer with United), which make their real-time upgrade inventory available to subscribers. The service allows you to figure out the lowest priced fare class eligible for upgrade, and shows which flights have upgradeable seats at that fare.
The cheapest economy fare on my dates of travel was an economy fare of about $230, but only a fare starting at $450 was upgradeable. Still, I preferred "spending" 30,000 miles for $1600 of value rather than 25,000 miles for $230 of value (the price of the cheapest economy fare). 
But it's not always that easy to snag an upgradeable seat at a reasonable fare. Over the last year or two, the major US-based airlines have been tinkering with their upgrade policies, changing mileage requirements, the eligible fare classes, and adding fees. Worse, they've been eliminating flights, reducing seat availability. Here's an update of what to expect.
American levies a $100 round-trip co-pay plus 30,000 miles for non-Hawaiian domestic upgrades (half these amounts for one-way; all mileage requirements and co-pays in this article are based on round-trips); there is a $300 co-pay on Hawaiian routes. But virtually all American fare classes are eligible for upgrades. On international flights, most destinations require 50,000 miles plus $700 to upgrade from discounted economy fares (there are no co-pays from full fare economy fares). Fares booked in I, O and Q fare classes aren't upgradeable for travel to Asia, Europe, India or South America; and those booked in I or O are ineligible for travel elsewhere as well.


Continental also requires co-pays, but allows all discounted fare classes to be upgraded, subject to inventory controls. Co-pays on flights offering BusinessFirst business class cabins (international flights and nonstops between Houston or Newark and Hawaii) range from $200 to $1000 round-trip; on flights where BusinessFirst isn't offered, co-pays range from $100 to $300, although B, M, H, and K fare classes are exempt (as are "Elite" frequent flyer members).


Delta used to allow upgrades only on more expensive economy class fares, but they recently added less-expensive H, Q and K fare classes. However, other airlines generally offer more fare class choices, a situation mitigated only slightly by Delta's 25,000 mile upgrades on non-Hawaiian domestic routes (compared to the 30,000 required by other airlines). The good thing about upgrading with miles on Delta is that there are no co-pays. But for international travel, only the more expensive, slightly discounted, B and M fares are available for upgrades.


Effective for award requests made on or after January 12, 2010, the good news is that upgrades on many routes will require fewer miles and more fare classes will be eligible; the bad news is that you'll have to fork over a co-pay of between $100 and $1000 (United had originally scheduled co-pays to kick in this past July, but had a change of heart). In the current (pre-Jan 12) scheme, on a flight from North America to international destinations you could only upgrade to business class from a fairly expensive M or H economy class fare for 60,000 miles, but with no co-pay. After January 12, that same trip can be upgraded from a much wider range of fare classes for just 40,000 miles, but with a co-pay of $500-$1000, depending on the fare class and destination. Prior to January 12 , fares booked in G class aren't upgradeable; for travel from North America, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Central America to all other destinations United serves, E, U, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, and G fares are non-upgradeable.
On domestic US flights, starting in January, co-pays range from $100-$200 round-trip, but soar to $1000 for upgrading the cheapest fares to or from Hawaii. But all fare classes will be upgradeable. So, while there's greater flexibility, the co-pays may make upgrading an expensive proposition, assuming that seats, which are inventory controlled, are even available. And keep in mind that those "name your own price" fares you bought from Priceline are also ineligible.


US Air

As of August 15, 2009, US Airways no longer required their Dividend Miles members to purchase a minimum fare (it had been $1400) to upgrade to business class. There's currently no co-pay for domestic flights, even to Hawaii. For international travel, you pay 60,000 miles plus $600 ($800 to the Middle East). All fare classes are eligible for upgrade, but that doesn't mean that all seats and flights have seats available.
Maybe you should just buy an upgrade?
So which airline should you earn miles on if you're hoping to upgrade? Let's not bring your frequent flyer status into the discussion, because that would complicate things beyond the scope of this article. The truth is, it's a complicated question, because all the miles and co-pay cash in the world amount to nothing if there are no seats available for upgrades when and where you want to fly, or if the only fares eligible are so expensive that when you add a co-pay, you might as well just buy a discounted business class ticket. Which airlines have the most seats available for upgrades at the lowest possible fares? No one really knows (if the aforementioned worked with all airlines, we might have a fighting chance at stabbing a guess). But that's the crux of the matter: what difference does it make how many miles you need, or what fare classes are eligible, or what the co-pays are, if the airlines, which are cutting flights and capacity in their premium cabins, really just want to sell you a business or first class seat and aren't making enough available for upgrades? Basically, the only way to make sure you sit up front is to buy your way in.


To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Happy holidays... another $10 please!

Posted by A Tam on Sunday, September 27, 2009

Your plane tickets to grandma's house for the holidays just got a bit more expensive.  As if peak holiday fares aren't expensive enough, Delta, American, United, and US have added $10 per ticket on peak travel days. This will apply for most fares for travel on Nov 29th  (Sunday after Thanksgiving), Jan 2nd and Jan 3rd.  Most of you will be complaining of course, but the airlines are still cash strapped as mentioned in this blog post last week.  There are ways to avoid the baggage fees, but no real way to avoid this surcharge unless you don't fly on peak days. As long as airlines continue to lose money, we'll see more tactics like this. The most likely new fee? Charging for advance seat assignments, a move already taken by several discount airlines and most recently by British Airways.

Categories: Airline Industry News
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