In the short term, not a lot, unless you’re an American employee, retiree, stock or bond holder, or vendor. American will keep flying, honor all reservations and travel vouchers, and all frequent flyer miles.
In fact, there may be a silver lining, again in the short term. If past filings are any prediction, we may see the airline attempt to lure reluctant consumers by offering bonus frequent flyer miles and perhaps a fare sale. And if people shun American, it might be easier to find seats for frequent flyer award travel.
On the minus side, anyone flying on American in the coming weeks and months will have to deal with even lower employee morale. After all, the whole point of this filing was to lower labor costs and bring them in line with those of airlines that previously filed for Chapter 11 as well as with low cost carriers formed after deregulation.American’s flight attendants, baggage handlers, gate and ticket agents and reservationists will earn less and their pensions are in jeopardy. You may not see too many smiles on your next flight.
But in the longer term, it’s anyone’s guess. True, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways, and Northwest filed for Chapter 11 in the recent past, but those filings ultimately resulted in consolidation, which has led to higher airfares and less competition. Today, the U.S. really only has two large “reasonably healthy” legacy carriers—United and Delta. Southwest Airlines is doing fine, although not exactly flourishing, but US Airways is relatively small and still dealing with its messy acquisition of America West, and now American is ailing. That leaves a handful of smaller niche carriers—JetBlue, Virgin America, Hawaiian, Alaska, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, some of which are not consistently profitable. Over the last few years, we’ve lost Aloha, ATA, and Mexicana to Chapter 9, not to mention TWA, Eastern, Pan Am and other carriers, and Midwest and Airtran, among others, to consolidation.
In short, the U.S. airline industry is suffering.
Meanwhile, foreign airlines are hoping to siphon off high-value business travelers and other flyers on international routes. For example, highly profitable and growing Emirates Airlines has its sights aimed on the U.S. market and has ambitious plans for adding U.S. gateways, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington (it already flies from New York, LA, San Francisco and Houston). As other analysts have noted, a profitable business class flyer jetting from Dallas to an international destination can fly on an ailing American Airlines or they might prefer connecting through Dubai on Emirates and enjoy newer planes and better service. That could spell trouble for what’s left of the U.S. airline industry.
Ever wonder why airlines lose, delay and damage bags? We asked an airline baggage handler who, of course, spoke to us anonymously, what it’s like in the belly of the beast and on the tarmac. What he told us might help you arrive with your bag and its contents intact.
What goes on behind the curtain?
You might be amazed at how much manpower it takes to put a passenger aircraft in the air. Obviously, the majority of time, you’ll only see the pilots, flight attendants, and gate agents. That already is a lot of people, but there are more people working outside to get you to your destination. Once you leave your bag at the check-in counter, it goes through a series of conveyor belts, where it may or may not be opened and searched by TSA, until it reaches the pier for your departing flight. It is then sorted into carts by one ramp agent who then brings it plane side for other ramp agents to load on the airplane. You may not be able to see much from your window seat, but we can see all around the tarmac. Other than bags, there is a lot of other cargo that gets transported by air. We see everything from human remains, to mail to fruits and vegetables coming on and off the plane. We’re also the guys directing the plane to its parking position at the gate, securing the aircraft, and hooking up the ground power and air. Also, since planes don’t go in reverse, we are the guys driving the push back tug, ensuring that aircraft do not come in contact with each other. How do bags get damaged?
I’m not going to lie, your checked luggage takes a beating. They call it “throwing bags” for a reason. There isn’t an easy way around this. Airplanes are only making money while in the air and no airline wants an airplane on the ground too long. Due to the nature of some aircraft, it would be impossible to turn around a 737 or 757 in an hour or less without throwing bags because it’s just faster. On these planes, there are only two long and narrow cargo holds where your luggage goes. One agent puts the bags on the belt loader, which carries it up to an agent inside the cargo hold who throws it 50 feet to the back where another agent stacks all the bags as if it were a game of Tetris. Wheels and handles oftentimes break or crack on impact and anything fragile inside that is not packed well doesn’t stand much of a chance. Don’t put red wine or alcohol in your suitcase ever. I would never check any fragile items in a soft sided suitcase, unless it was professionally packaged. Those fragile stickers don’t get noticed very often in the rush of loading bags unless it is an obvious shape, such as a musical instrument. I am a musician so I take special care of those, but not everyone is a musician. Bags can also get damaged by loose ends getting caught in the belt, which can tear off straps, zippers, or handles. Handles also break off many times if the bag is packed extremely heavy and we try to pick it up by the handle. One good thing about the larger aircraft (747, 767, 777, 787, etc.) is that they are all loaded by machines. Your bags are just put in a can and that can is loaded on the plane by machine so there is no bag throwing. So theoretically there’s a better chance of your bag coming out unscathed if you fly in one of those jets. How do bags get lost?
Sometimes the airport code is read incorrectly and it gets put in the wrong cart and brought to the wrong plane. Someone might mistake VCE for NCE or PDX and PHX. It happens, but not that often. It is always important to ensure you have the correct destination on your bag tag and to keep your receipt. Secure your contact information on the outside and inside of the bag in case the outside tag falls off. If your bag ends up in a different destination, it won’t get re-routed until it reaches wherever it went and is scanned. We try to scan all the bags going on a flight, but the scanners are all wireless now and don’t always work due to bad connections or getting locked up. If time is of the essence, your bag may not get scanned. Also, if you have a tight connection, you may be able to make it, but your bag may not. On smaller regional flights, many times bags are not loaded or taken off due to weight and balance limits. This is for safety reasons and ensures a safe take off and landing weight. So try to avoid those planes.
Finally, there’s the old “fell off the truck” scenario. Not in the sense that someone took your bag, but that it actually fell off the cart on its way to or from the aircraft. This happens all the time and sometimes will delay your bag if it is not noticed by anyone right away. What kind of suitcases get damaged least/most?
Cheap bags that you buy at the discount store break very easily. If your handle is sewn on or is very flimsy, it’s probably going to break. If you travel a lot or pack heavy, make sure you buy a quality, durable bag. Hard-sided suitcases will get less damage, but also look for well-designed handles that are attached with rivets and some sort of protection around the wheels. Speaking of wheels, the best bags to get are the “spinners” with four wheels on the bottom. We like these, because we don’t have to throw them when loading. We just glide them down the belly of the plane so your bag and its contents will suffer much less damage. Why don’t airlines cover certain things?
My best guess as to why airlines don’t cover common damages, such as wheels, handles, and straps, is because they break so often that they would be paying out all the time. Have you ever seen theft?
I have not personally seen anyone take anything from a bag and keep it but I wouldn’t say that it never happens. There are no cameras inside the belly of the plane. When I have to check a bag, I always use the TSA approved locks to lock the suitcase. I do this not only to prevent someone from easily taking something, but also to keep the bag closed. We see open bags all the time because the zipper just started coming apart, and yes, things do fall out of these open bags. Sometimes, we see it and can put whatever came out back in the bag it came from, but sometimes there are just random items strewn around the belly. If it’s a random piece of clothing or a shoe, those won’t go down the baggage claim belt too well and oftentimes just get discarded eventually. How can passengers prevent their bags from going astray?
The main thing to do is keep your bag tag receipt so you can track your bag. If it didn’t get scanned on the flight, it will get scanned eventually when it reaches a station. Also, try to plan sufficient ground time for your bag to make its connection. Thirty or forty minutes isn’t always enough at a big airport like Atlanta. What’s it like to work in that environment?
It’s fast paced, loud, and potentially dangerous. Hearing protection is a must, but not everyone wears it. Really not a good idea considering you are working around jet engines. Speaking of jet engines, they are very dangerous. There is risk of jet blast and suction that wouldn’t end pretty if you were careless. This is one of the main points emphasized in training. In general, training was all about safety. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. It’s a labor-intensive job that involves working with heavy machinery and in all weather conditions.
CHRISTMAS may be the most wonderful time of the year, but any travel addict will agree that the next couple of weeks are a lock for second place. Why? It's quite simple. Nobody's traveling. Roads are empty, airports almost relaxed, beaches quiet, ski resorts open but not packed, hotel rooms can be cheaper than staying home.
In this short but excellent space in time, much of the world (well, places you don't have to spend a ton of money to fly to) is your oyster. This is, for example, a fantastic time for domestic road trips, or visits to Mexico and Canada. Sometimes, the bargains are so seriously good, it's enough to make you want to cancel Christmas (and New Year's) and take your time off now.
In the old days, bargain hunters mostly relied on their own research skills to dig up the best finds, but as the annual Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping events start to become more important to travel providers, there are even more crazy sales out there to choose from.
And while it's really nice that this or that hotel chain is offering 15 percent off if you book now, pay now, go away and never ask for a date change or a refund, we're far more excited to see the values out there on more high-end stuff – deals worth getting really excited about.
Here are ten that fit the bill for us at Airfare Watchdog – maybe you too? Be warned though: Some of these will disappear almost as fast as they come on the market. Spontaneity is a must. Then again, if you're thinking of taking a trip in the next couple of weeks, you probably don't have a problem being spontaneous.
#1 TUCSON The deal One of the most exclusive destination spas in the country, Miraval, is offering a 30 percent off rate of $375 (and up) per person, per night for travel through Jan. 15, with a three-night minimum. Included: Meals and most activities; they're also throwing in a $130/night credit for spa treatments and other premium stuff. Book Book Nov. 28 only with promo code HOLIDAY; miravalresorts.com. Click here to see the lowest available fares to Tucson (TUS).
#3 WESTERN CARIBBEAN The deal Hop on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas for a last-minute 4-nighter sailing from Tampa to Cozumel, Mexico and back. The dates? Dec. 1-5. The rate? $199 per person, a crazy drop from the $659 per person rate for the same cruise over New Year's. Book Based on availability; (800) CRUISES, cruisesonly.com Click here to see the lowest available fares to Tampa (TPA).
#4 MEXICO The deal The very good Fairmont Mayakoba – an easy spin from the airport in Cancun – is offering rates from $199/night for travel through Dec. 23. That's 30 percent off the usual. Breakfast, room credit and other perks are included. Book Available Nov. 28 only on fairmont.com Click here to see the lowest available fares to Cancun (CUN).
#5 LAS VEGAS The deal Get up to 50 percent off your next stay in Sin City – just book a Black Friday Special package of 3 nights or more (staying at an MGM Resorts hotel) with Southwest Vacations for travel by the end of January. Included: Buffet coupons and other goodies. Book Through Dec. 1 at southwestvacations.com. Click here to see the lowest available fares to Las Vegas (LAS).
#7 LAKE TAHOE The deal The impressive Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe on the slopes at Northstar is offering an impressive "Discover" package deal from $279/night through December; it includes breakfast for two and a $100 hotel credit. Book Based on availability, through Dec. 31; ritzcarlton.com Click here to see the lowest available fares to Reno (RNO).
#8 NEW ORLEANS The deal This is a great time to visit the Big Easy – tourism trickles to a minimum, and locals go all out to celebrate the holidays. To get you in the door, many hotels offer deeply discounted "Papa Noel" rates that start as low as $59/night. Book Based on availability, book at neworleansonline.com Click here to see the lowest available fares to New Orleans (MSY).
#10 ST. THOMAS The deal Get 50 percent off the room-only rate in the Oceanview category (this means you'll pay just shy of $150) at the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort; stay as short or as long as you like, through Dec. 22. Book Available through Nov. 28; (800) 524-4746, bolongobay.com Click here to see the lowest available fares to St. Thomas (STT).
On July 26, 2011, Eugene, OR resident Julie Smithmart purchased an airline ticket from US Airways. What she ended up with was a "code share" ticket on United Airlines for travel on December 25, 2011 (Des Moines to Eugene, OR with a connection in Denver), returning on December 31, 2011. On Sunday November 13, 2011, she logged into check her arrival time in Eugene. Instead of a confirmed reservation she discovered that her Des Moines to Denver and Denver to Des Moines legs had been cancelled. US Airways didn't notify her of this.
After over three hours on the phone with US Airways and United Smithmart was able to rebook flights, but was forced to change her return date to January 2, 2012. "I have requested some kind of compensation for my additional vacation days lost, hotel, food, and rental car expenses," she says. "But I was told take this or get a refund of my ticket and rebook at my expense at a much higher fare on another airline with two changes of plane."
What's particularly galling about this is that United/US Airways still flies from Eugene to Des Moines round-trip, and still has seats available for sale on Smithmart's original dates of travel, albeit at over $500 round-trip, less than Smithmart originally paid.
Are there any consumer regulations in place to protect travelers like Smithmart?
In a word, no. Every week, I receive complaints about airlines changing their schedules far in advance of travel (I'm not talking here about last minute cancellations), causing hardship and considerable extra expense for their customers. It's entirely unfair, and really, what other industry could get away with this? (That's why which I've called for 12 new consumer protections).
Could a retailer substitute a lesser quality item than the one you originally bought at the last minute and expect you to pay more to get the item you actually ordered? Could a restaurant substitute a hamburger for the rib eye you originally purchased? Or how about a rock concert. Sure, concert dates are cancelled, but would the promoter change your date to another day and city without telling you? And then substitute the some B-list act for the Rolling Stones? And yet airlines get away with these shenanigans all the time.
I've advised Smithmart to call US Airways again and insist that they rebook her on her original flights and keep calling until they do so. I would also lodge a complaint with the U.S. D.O.T. here.
To read more from Tracy Stewart, visit his profile on Google+
When Irfan Baig checked in for a flight from Memphis to Chicago a full 90 minutes before departure, he had no idea it was going to be such a bumpy flight -- or that he'd never take off.
In addition to having checked in well ahead of flight time, Baig had a confirmed seat assignment and was actually sitting in his seat when an American Airlines employee appeared and chose three passengers to boot off the plane.
"When I inquired why I was picked out of the 100-plus passenger list, I was told I was one of the last to check in," the Seattle-based software engineer recalls. "Really? Ninety minutes ahead?"
Worse still, American gave him a $250 travel voucher, when he was entitled to a cash payment.
But there's some good news about the airlines' policies concerning involuntary denied boarding (IDB to airline geeks, getting bumped to you and me).
First, the compensation for being bumped has gone up.
Passengers can now collect up to $1,300 for being bumped from a domestic flight if they arrive at their destination more than two hours later than scheduled, under Department of Transportation rules revised earlier this year. (The previous maximum was $800.)
Passengers can also get as much as $650 (up from $400) if they get to their destination within one to two hours of the scheduled time, according to the new rule. Different rules apply to international flights: the lower amount is paid for delays from one to four hours, the higher for delays over four hours. And these are maximum amounts: the actual payment will be 200% of the applicable one-way fare for shorter delays, and 400% of the one-way fare for longer delays.
Note, too, that different (and more generous) compensation applies if you're flying within or from the European Union, even if you're not an EU citizen. Read the EU rules.
Second, it rarely happens. The rate of involuntary bumping was 1.09 per 10,000 passengers in 2010, down from 1.23 in the same period of 2009, according to DOT statistics.
But there's bad news, too: It does happen. And when it does, with flights jam-packed thanks to capacity cuts and industry consolidation, there's often not much the airline can do to get you to your meeting or your uncle's funeral on time, or to the cruise ship that's going to sail off to the Amazon without you.
Before you resign yourself to a spot on the airport floor, Airfarewatchdog offers this advice:
Who gets bumped
The process for deciding this is usually based on the last person to check in and/or board, among other factors.
Elite tier members of an airline's frequent flier program are typically less likely to be bumped. You should also know that the folks in the cheap seats have lower priority on some airlines than the ones who paid full fare.
So if you're a very frequent flier at the highest tier of your airline's program and/or paid a full fare (or are a business or first class passenger) you're more likely to get on board than the poor chap who paid next to nothing for his coach ticket. (Interestingly, Baig had no status in American's AAdvantage program when he was unceremoniously ejected from his seat.)
If the airline won't issue you a seat assignment when you buy your ticket, that's a red flag and you might want to choose another flight or carrier.
What you're owed
Passengers should insist on a check instead of a travel voucher (a free round-trip flight, for example), which many airlines typically offer, because vouchers come with restrictions and can be difficult to redeem (you sometimes can only cash them in at the airport).
If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flier award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
If you're bumped but arrive at your destination within an hour of the original time, there's no compensation owed. And there are exceptions to the rules that you should read about.
What to do if you're bumped
Most bumpees (whether voluntary or involuntary) have to wait until the original flight is closed out before the agent can assist you.
Often, a seat may open up at the last minute if someone does not board. Also, it's usually only the gate agent at the airport who can handle the booking for the next flight and issue compensation. Calling the airline's toll-free number will not get you anywhere.
If the gate agent instructs you to go to a customer service counter to be rebooked and/or receive compensation, then you can try calling the 1-800 number for assistance, but compensation is almost always issued at the airport by the agent who handled the flight.
If you absolutely, positively have to get there, you could try this: Make your own announcement in the boarding area offering to pay a fellow passenger to give up a seat. Obviously, you need to have a lot of cash in your pocket to make this work, but it's worth a try if you're desperate. You should also ask to be put on another airline's flight, if there is one, to where you were headed.
And rather than just taking your lumps with your bump, you can always ask (nicely) to be flown on another airline to get where you're going, assuming that another airline even flies there and there are seats available. Some airlines (notably, Alaska and United) still have a Rule 240 in their contracts of carriage.
How not to get bumped
One way to avoid getting bumped altogether is to fly JetBlue Airways, because the New York-based carrier refuses to overbook and consequently has the best bumping track record among all major U.S. carriers.
Also, avoid peak travel days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are best) and seasons (the day before Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday periods are notorious for being bump-prone) when planes tend to be jammed full.
Of course, the easiest thing you can do is book way ahead and arrive early. Way early. Don't buy a ticket if there are no assigned seats available. And be loyal: attain some status in your airline's frequent flier program and you're less likely to be ill-treated.
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