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Entries during 2011-08

Computer Says No

Q. A few months ago, I purchased a non-stop round trip flight from Minneapolis to Ft. Myers. The airline emailed my itinerary, and I noticed the flight had suddenly been changed to include a plane change in Detroit, but no change in price at all.  I called customer service and was told, “the computer did it.”  I was able to have the flight restored to the original nonstop one.  Why did the computer do that?  My guess is that it is because the seat on the nonstop flight is now selling for a lot more money.  It doesn’t seem ethical to me.

A. I would say yes indeed, since they were able to give you back your nonstop flight that they were hoping to sell the more desirable nonstop flight for more. We’ve seen airlines do this in the past, so it’s nothing new. You did the right thing to insist that you get what you originally paid for. How would “the computer” like it if it paid for high speed wi-fi and got pokey dial-up instead?

Lost Luggage/Long Layovers

Q. Recently, my ticket got changed by the airline so that I now have a 4-hour layover between the 2 legs of my outbound flight. I've heard that it is most common for luggage to be lost when you have long layovers, as they put the luggage aside rather than transporting it to where it needs to go immediately (there's no flight or gate for it to go to yet). I would think too quick a layover would mean the luggage may not make the plane, but is too long a layover a problem, too?

I'm really kind of scared to check a bag now, but I can't imagine lugging around a massive carryon during a 4-hour layover...

A. These days you should thank your lucky stars for such a layover, considering how often flights are delayed. You'll probably arrive with just enough time to grab a quick snack and make your connection. If you're concerned about your bag making the flight, you might want to consider using Fed Ex ground instead. They tend not to lose things so much and, with all those newly invented airline baggage fees, you might even save some cash. You can check out our shipping vs bag check comparison chart here.

Pack Light, Pay Less

Q. I can't get over all the fees on Spirit Airlines. These taxes and fees are already half of my fare. They even charge you for a carryon! How can a checked bag cost less then a carryon? Is there any way to get around paying for carry ons? And what exactly constitutes a "passenger facility fee?"

A. Well, because Spirit only charges for bags that go in the overhead and allows for a free personal item, one strategy is to pack a bag small enough to cram under the seat in front of you; which of course doesn't work for everyone. Spirit might be charging more for carryons than checked bags because they want to load and unload planes faster. A plane load of passengers struggling to find overhead space can contribute to delays. As for the passenger facility fee, that's actually imposed by the airport each time the plane does a take off/landing.

Best if used by...?

Q. If you have a voucher from an airline and it has to be used within a year of issue does that mean that the flight has to be booked within one year of issue and you can fly after the date; or does it mean that you have to use and fly within the time period?  

A. In most cases, it means that all travel must be completed within one year of the voucher’s issue.

Buy tix from the cruise or independently?

Q. We are thinking about taking a European cruise on Seabourn Cruise Lines next year. Should we buy airfare from the cruise line or buy it independently?

A. It's hard to say without knowing your itinerary. Sometimes cruise lines offer enticing airfares, especially to Europe, where fares have remained high and are discouraging consumers from cruising there. Last year, Seabourn had some remarkable air-inclusive European cruises at around $2200 per person; considering that airfare to Europe at the time was as high as $1400 per person, and that Seabourn is such a luxurious cruise line, that was quite a bargain. We've also seen some very inexpensive upgrade to business class offered by cruise lines. Often, however, we find that fares bought from cruise lines are higher than a sale fare bought directly from an airline. I suggest you sign up for Seabourn's email alerts, but also search the fares frequently on your own over the next few months and if something better than what the cruise line is offering pops up, book it.

Bling in your bag? Maybe not the best idea...

Q. I took a United flight from Shanghai to San Francisco and checked luggage, but when I arrived at home, I found that my pearl necklaces that were put in the luggage were stolen. I contacted United, but got no response from them. What should I do? May I ask for compensation from the airline?

A. Valuables are stolen from checked bags often, and that's why airlines take no responsibility for them. "Valuables" can be anything from electronics, important business papers, jewelry, or anything of high or irreplaceable value. You should never put them in your checked luggage. I seriously doubt that United will do anything for you, but you should make a report to the police and the TSA. It's possible that your homeowners insurance will cover you.

Mechanical Issue or Not Enough Passengers?

Q. I was booked on flight from Dallas to Birmingham, Alabama and it was canceled. When I asked a counter agent why, they said it was because there were not enough passengers for the flight. We were rebooked on next flight, six hours later. When I contacted the airline's customers relations department they stated that the flight was canceled due to mechanical problems, and they gave me an eVoucher for $200. I also asked for an earlier return flight, and had them waive the change fee of $150. My question: could an airline cancel a flight just because there aren't enough passengers, and do you think the customer relations people were loathe to admit it and changed the cause to mechanical problems?

A. We've heard rumors for years that airlines cancel flights because there aren't enough passengers, but even if these tales are true no airline would ever admit to it. Canceling for that reason just doesn't make much sense to us. Most planes are scheduled to go to other destinations in the airline's system, so canceling a flight has consequences down the line. In your case, American's flight to Birmingham was probably going to fly right back to Dallas, but canceling still would have impacted passengers waiting for it at the other end. Also, flights are so full these days that it's hard to believe one was canceled for lack of passengers.

Fool me twice...

Q. In July 2010, I booked a Spirit Air flight from Detroit to Montego Bay, departing May 6, 2011 and returning May 14, 2011, and I also booked an all inclusive resort stay for the same dates. In March, Spirit Air sent me a note stating the May 6 flight was cancelled and I was rebooked on a flight for May 7. I had already paid for the eight-day all-inclusive resort and it was non-refundable but now I was on a seven-day vacation. Then in December 2010, unaware that I was going to have the issues with Spirit Air in March 2011, we booked another trip from Detroit to Montego Bay from Nov 6-15, 2011.  Again, we booked an all-inclusive vacation for that time frame.  Well you can guess what happened.  Today, Spirit Air sent me a note that they have cancelled the flight on November 15 and rebooked me for a Nov 14 flight. Again, I pay for one day of vacation I will not be able to use.

Does Spirit Airlines have any obligation to compensate me for the days I pay for and then cannot use?  Other than learning my lesson and not booking Spirit again, do you have any other suggestions.

A. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens all the time. Even most travel insurance policies, had you bought one, won't cover losses to non-refundable land arrangements caused by airline schedule changes such as the ones you describe. What's needed, in my opinion, is a D.O.T. regulation requiring airlines to make passengers whole when there's a schedule change that is made well in advance. Either the airline should put you on another airline or at the very least give you a refund or a voucher good for future travel in the amount of your loss.

Cutting it Close on Connections

Q. I am flying into Los Angeles International Airport from Tokyo on Korean Air, arriving at 9:15 a.m.  I am connecting to another flight departing at 11:10 a.m. on American Airlines to Sacramento.  Do you think two hours is enough time for me to make it onto that domestic flight, given I also have checked luggage? Would Korean Air help me transfer my luggage to American Airlines? Or would I have to claim luggage, go through customs, and reenter American Airlines' terminal and go through the check in process again?

A. Whenever you transfer from an inbound international flight to a domestic connecting flight, you have to claim your bags and go through customs and immigration. Then you have to check your bags in with the connecting airline. If all goes well and your inbound  flight is on time, it's conceivable that two hours is enough time, but when you do the math, you'll see that you're cutting it close and setting yourself up for stress.

Figure it takes 10-15 minutes just to deplane a wide body jet depending on the class of service you're flying in (they let the economy class flyers deplane last).  Walking to baggage claim might take another 10 minutes. Waiting for your bags to appear? Typically 15 minutes but it could take longer. Going through passport control? Who knows. It could take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. Then you have to change terminals, check in your bags with the connecting airline, go through TSA, walk to the gate, and be in your seat 15 minutes before departure or they might give your seat away.  So is 1 hour and 55 minutes enough time? I'm having heart palpitations even thinking about it. I'd give yourself at least four hours to make a connection like this safely.

Can they really change my flight and charge me more?

Q. I was booked on a nonstop flight, which was canceled and instead put on a connecting flight on the same airline. Because it connected, I was charged an additional passenger facility fee of $10. Can the airlines do this? Is it fair?

A. This is simply ludicrous. But yes they can, and no it is not. The money goes to the airport, not the airline.

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