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Entries during 2012-04

A Tale of Two Scales

Q. I recently took a trip where I was dangerously close to being overweight with both my checked bags. With this in mind, I weighed both my bags with a certified scale before leaving the house and found that each bag weighed under 40 pounds. When I got the check-in counter, however, my first bag weighed in at 57 pounds on the airline scales, the other at 42. Obviously, I switched some things around to make keep both bags under the 50-pound limit. Is it possible the airlines' scales aren't zeroed automatically? Or is this a conspiracy to add up those "overweight" charges?

A. I doubt it’s a conspiracy, but you should never trust airport check-in desk luggage scales. Most local jurisdictions have a bureau of weights and measures responsible for checking the scales at least annually, but a lot can happen between checks. It’s a good idea to carry a portable digital luggage scale if you typically travel with checked bags weighing near the 50-pound “overweight” limit so that you can check the accuracy of the airport scales. They’re available at local luggage stores or online.

Reason to complain?

Q. Why is the general public (and readers of your column and website) complaining about the high cost of airfares? I worked in the airline “industry” from 1969 to 2003 in aircraft maintenance. Back in 1970 I flew from Los Angeles to Minneapolis round-trip. I remember well that back then the lowest fare was $350 (as an employee I paid 25 percent or $75). That 1970 $350 fare adjusted for inflation would be about $3500 in today’s dollars. You can still fly that route when there’s a sale for $250 or so round-trip (obviously, it depends on the time of year and day of week). My point is that airfares, adjusted for inflation, are still very cheap. So why do people keep on griping about the high cost of air travel?

A. I’m not sure about your inflation-adjusted math, but I agree that if airfares increased at the same rate as other “commodities” (gas prices, food, postage stamps) then they’d be a lot higher now. Remember when it cost just 8 cents or less to mail a first class letter? Some people argue that other consumer items (televisions, for example) have come down in price over the years, even adjusted for inflation, but I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. I think consumers have been conditioned to expect low airfares thanks to an airline industry that has been chronically over-supplied for many years. It may be time to readjust our thinking as to the value of air travel.

Anything for a cheap fare?

Q. My family of three needs to fly from Baton Rouge to Richmond. Fares have been very expensive. In order to fly as cheaply as possible, I bought three one-way fares from Atlanta to Richmond for just $60 each when that route was on sale, but now I need to find a cheap fare from Baton Rouge to Atlanta in order to connect to the Atlanta-Richmond flight. I’m finding that round-trip fares from Baton Rouge to Atlanta are cheaper than one-way fares, so I thought we’d buy a round-trip and not use the return flight. (The flight into Atlanta arrives at 5:58 p.m. and I was going to buy a flight from Atlanta to Richmond leaving at 6:30 p.m. Is that too close for comfort?). However, I called Delta and was told we would be charged $150 per ticket as a change fee for a flight we didn’t take. Can Delta do that? What if we were in an accident or were otherwise unable to make the return flight?

A. Whoa. It’s amazing what people are doing these days to get around high airfares. First of all, yes you’re playing with fire here if you book a 30-minute connection in Atlanta. Atlanta Hartsfield is a huge airport and prone to delays. You probably wouldn’t even be able to run to your connection and still make the boarding cut off for your next flight. And if you miss your flight, even if there are seats on the next flight out, you’ll pay a last minute “walk up” fare which will be sky high. Delta’s rules prohibit “throwaway ticketing” which is what you’re proposing by not using the return flight of a round-trip ticket. Will they somehow charge you $150 as a change fee? I’m not sure how they’d do that successfully. Place a charge on your credit card? Send you a bill? I do know that airlines prohibiting this practice can mess with your frequent flyer miles if you break their ticketing rules too often, and travel agents are sometimes billed for the fare difference if a customer uses a throwaway ticket. I somehow doubt they have a legal recourse to go after an individual consumer, but the trip that you’re proposing doesn’t make any sense and I would seriously rethink your travel plans.

An Empty Seat To Keep?

Q. My daughter has been hospitalized and will not be able to fly with her sister and I. What happens at the airport when we have three seats and only two of us checked in?  If they give our seat to another passenger will they give me a voucher? If we do not get a voucher, can I insist on keeping the seat empty and having more room for us? Our tickets were paid with Amex points and cash.

A. Sorry to hear about your daughter's illness. Hope she's better soon. Any chance you bought travel insurance for her?

If not, depending on the airline, they'll either give her a credit minus a change fee (up to $150 on a domestic non-refundable ticket) or give her the full amount in a credit. Southwest, for example, doesn't charge a change fee and your daughter can use the credit for up to a year.  But on another airline, the change fee might eat up most or all of the credit.

If your daughter doesn't check in for the flight, they'll probably give the seat away to a standby or other passenger. If you want to keep the seat empty, check your daughter in for the flight online and get a boarding pass at a kiosk. That way it's unlikely anyone else will claim the seat, although if a flight attendant or other employee notices the seat is empty and the flight is oversold, the airline may still attempt to claim it.

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