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Entries by Carl Unger

Fuel Prices Up, What Does that Mean for Me?

Q: I've heard recently that airline fuel prices are going up. What does that mean for me?

A: Sadly, it means you may end up paying more to fly. Back in 2008, fuel prices spiked to astronomical levels. Airlines freaked out, as you can imagine, and blitzed customers with all sorts of fees and charges. Well, airlines are better positioned nowadays to absorb fluctuations in fuel cost, but steadily rising prices over the past few months have fares ticking upward as well. If prices continue to rise in 2011, as many are predicting, you can bet consumers will be footing the bill, either through jacked up fares or more fees.

Blizzard + Tarmac Delays = Fines or No Fines?

Q: The recent blizzard caused quite the spate of tarmac delays. Will we finally see some fines for these violations?

A: It's a little premature to say just yet, but it seems unlikely we'll see many fines, or at least any hefty ones. Most of the tarmac delay nightmare stories we've heard involve international carriers, which aren't covered by the Department of Transportation's tarmac delay rules. There's a chance the DOT could fine these airlines if it turns out they violated their own policies, but otherwise the DOT has little jurisdiction.

Domestic carriers will probably be spared also, because the circumstances—a major snowstorm—fall within the exemptions written into the rule in the first place. The DOT allows pilots and air traffic control to overrule the rule when the conditions on the ground, including weather, make it unsafe to unload passengers. So unless a major case of poor judgment is determined to have resulted in a tarmac delay, it's hard to see any fines coming. Keep in mind that the DOT hasn't issued any fines since the rules took effect.

Does Southwest's Acquisition of AirTran Mean its Fees Will Change?

Q: Couldn't help but notice that by purchasing AirTran, Southwest now owns an airline that charges bag fees, something Southwest has refused to do. Does this mean Southwest will be changing its policy?

A: In a word, no. Sure, it was strange to see Southwest, which loves to boast "Bags Fly Free," acquire an airline that charges for the privilege. But Southwest execs made it clear right off the bat that most of its policies, including those two free checked bags, will remain. The airline has no plans to adopt AirTran's business-class seating or assigned seat assignments, choosing instead to stick with its' tried-and-true single-class, cattle call approach.

Can the Fabled 'Rule 240' Help During a Pilot Strike?

Q: I have traveled for over 30 years love to fly and now I need help. If my flight to Orlando is canceled due to a pilot strike what do I do? Would rule 240 help me and my family ? Would trip insurance be a good hedge?

A: Even if your airline had a "Rule 240," a regulation that some airlines have in their contracts of carriage and that stipulate that they will put you on another airline if your flight is canceled,  it probably wouldn't apply to a strike situation. And with planes so full, it's unlikely that there would be many seats available to put you in. Travel insurance also won't help if a strike has already been announced by a labor union.

Wait a Minute, Aren't Award Tickets Supposed to be Free?

Q. I just received an email stating that Delta Airlines no longer charges a fee for cashing in frequent flyer miles. I wasn’t aware that Delta even charged for this service. Aren’t frequent flyer tickets free? And do other airlines charge?

A. Actually, Delta recently announced that it would no longer charge for “last minute” requests for frequent flyer tickets. Previously, it charged most members of its frequent flyer program (except “elite” members) a hefty fee if they requested seats 20 or fewer days before travel. United also used to charge for this, but no longer does. Unfortunately, many other airlines do charge between $50 and $100 for “close-in ticketing” of award travel, but we expect that now that since Delta and United no longer do other airlines will follow suit. US Airways currently charges up to $50 to issue an award ticket, whether “last minute” or not; and many airlines now charge co-pay fees to upgrade from economy to business or first class, in addition to miles.

Be sure to keep an eye on our Frequent Flyer Fees chart, which has all the info you need.

Not Nuts About Peanuts

Q. I have a peanut allergy, and I'm getting a bit tired of being offered peanuts on planes and having to sit near passengers who are eating them. Even the smell of peanuts bothers me at this point. Anything I can do?

A. As a matter of fact, yes. The Department of Transportation has included ideas for dealing with peanut allergy problems in its new consumer protections proposals. The DOT is considering an outright ban of peanuts onboard planes, as well as less drastic measures suh as requireing airlines to refrain from serving peanuts if an allergic passenger requests it. You can read all the proposals and offer your comment on this and other consumer protections matters at regulationroom.org.

Is There Hope For Lower Europe Fares Later This Summer?

Q: Don't have any vacation until end of June.....is there hope for a decent fare from Houston to Paris down the line?

A: At this point, it's looking slimmer and slimmer, but you just never know when it comes to Airfares. Even to the experts like us it's a mystery. Don't see anything below $1,000 at this point, but sign up for our fare alerts and we'll let you know if the situation changes.

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