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Entries during 2012-07

The New Flex Search Sitch

Q. I am retired and can fly on a flexible travel schedule. In past years, I’ve used and to pick and choose the cheapest dates to fly, using a flexible “fare calendar” on those websites. But recently I found that this function has disappeared. Where else can I look to find “I’ll fly whenever it’s cheapest” airfares?

A. You’re correct that Travelocity has eliminated its flexible date search tool, which used to allow you to search over several months at a glance. And Orbitz has hidden its flexible date calendar from its home page, although it still exists if you know where to look. Meanwhile, Hotwire, Kayak, and Cheapair all have useful flexible date search tools, as does ITAsoftware. More on this topic here.

Snazzy Star Alliance Paint Jobs

Q. I was at an airport in Canada a few weeks ago and noticed an airline called “Star Alliance.” Is that a new airline? I had never heard of it or seen it before.
A. No, it’s not a new airline. Star Alliance is an alliance of several major and smaller airlines that have joint marketing agreements. It’s similar to two other alliances, SkyTeam and OneWorld, which are both smaller than Star Alliance. What you noticed is that airlines are repainting some of their planes with the logos of these alliances. Some industry observers predict that eventually these allied airlines will morph into a super-consolidated airline across international borders, although current laws and treaties prevent this from happening and such a consolidation might be decades off, if indeed it ever happens. Personally, I think it’s time to reconsider laws that prevent full ownership by a U.S. airline of a foreign carrier and vice versa. After all, the auto industry is allowed to consolidate across international borders (Fiat’s purchase of Chrysler for example), as are most other industries.

Mele Kalikimaka

Q. We have reservations for Christmas week at the Halekulani resort in Honolulu but haven't booked our airfare yet. Fares seem pretty high. Is there a chance they'll go down? Hawaiian Airlines had a sale for holiday travel a couple of years ago but it only lasted 24 hours.

A. Coincidentally, I just flew from New York to Honolulu on the new Hawaiian Airlines nonstop, and they had an amazing short-lived sale for $340 round-trip including tax. (Fares on that route are typically $700 to $1,000 or more). I found out about it because I subscribe to the Hawaiian Airlines email alerts and also have their co-branded credit card.

Will fares go down? Probably. Allegiant Airlines is now flying to Hawaii, which will be downward pressure on fares, and Alaska Airlines has increased service. Fares to Hawaii fluctuate without notice and some of the best deals are unadvertised. Sign up for "airfare alerts" on your chosen route, and as you've discovered you need to pounce quickly when there's a sale.

And also, coincidentally, I stayed at the Halekulani for three nights during my trip. You'll be happy to know that the hotel looks better than ever after an extensive renovation. It's my favorite hotel on the islands.

Abuse of Service Dog Policies

Q. Skymall has decided to sell service dog vests in their magazine, making it oh so much easier for people to fake their pet as a service dog. As a service dog advocate and educator, I always wary when people try to pass off their pet as service dogs in order to do something like let them fly for free. Many people have brought this to Skymall's attention and they have ignored us thus far. I am disabled and have a real service dog and do not want to sit next to some untrained yipping beast who will drive my dog nuts.

I don't know if this in your realm of keeping a close eye on airfares, but this is causing trouble for real disabled service dog handlers. How can they get away with this?

A. If in fact Skymall is knowingly selling these items without checking first to see if the recipients do indeed have a disability then shame on them. This accommodation for disabled passengers is very loosely regulated and is prone to abuse. It's terrible that some passengers take advantage of such policies for service dogs, and risk ruining it for those who have a genuine need. I have encountered at least one person who abuses the privilege of bringing a "service animal" on board by pretending that she has a nervous condition requiring the presence of her household pet, thus avoiding putting the animal in a cage under the seat in front of her.


Sunny Stats for Airlines

Q. The Transportation Department recently released their on-time arrival data, and airlines have been boasting in the last several months about being on time more often and not losing as much baggage. But aren’t they just benefiting from the lack of major snowstorms and thunderstorms? Aren’t they also padding their schedules?

A. Either way, it's good news. Part of it is simply fewer flights. The skies are less crowded. Even Delta is getting rid of most of its 50-passenger regional jets, which occupy just as much take off and landing capacity as larger planes, but are less efficient at moving passengers due to their smaller size. And yes, every flight I've been on lately has landed way ahead of schedule, which suggests some padding. Not sure about the lack of thunderstorms though considering the violent weather in the DC area recently. 

As for the drop in lost bags, it's most likely because passengers are carrying their bags onboard, avoiding checked bag fees. As airlines install larger overhead bins to accommodate carry-ons, we'll see fewer checked bags than ever--and fewer lost bags. The downside of this trend, of course, is that all that fumbling with carry-ons can really slow down the boarding process and eat away at those on-time departures. We shall see!

Carry On Baggage Fees

Q. Is there a fee for carry on luggage?

A. Currently, only two airlines charge. Small but growing Allegiant Airlines charges between $10 and $35 for a carryon bag weighing no more than 25 lbs. and measuring no more than 9 in. by 14 in. by 22 in. The fee varies depending on the route you fly and is assessed per segment (a segment is a take off and landing). Spirit Airlines, another small low-cost carrier, currently charges $20 for carryon bags if paid for before check in, or $25 if paid for at check in. Fees are $10 higher for bags paid for at the airport counter and and are $45 if paid for at the airport gate. Those fees will go up by $5 effective Nov. 6, 2012. So you could conceivably pay up to $100 round-trip if you don’t pay for your cabin bag. Whether other airlines will follow suit is anyone’s guess, but Hawaiian Airlines sometimes weighs carryon bags as passengers board planes and their weight limit is 25 lbs., which while not a “fee” will result in a checked bag fee if a bag weighs more than the limit.

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