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Entries during 2009-09

Rebook or Refund

Q. My wife and I, and my daughter purchased round trip air fare nearly two months in advance. The airline, Sun Country, flew out of Branson, MO to Dallas, TX three times a week, including on Wednesday. About a week before our scheduled flight they called and left a message on our answering machine stating that they were eliminating their Wednesday flights and that they would refund our money or put us on another of their flights. I told them neither of those options helped since their next available flight would arrive nearly when I was supposed to be returning. They basically said "tough," that's all they can do, and legally that is all they have to do. Is there anything more I can do?

A. Other than writing your elected officials and demanding that they pass some regulations dealing with this increasingly common problem, not much. This country needs a regulation requiring that, when a flight is eliminated, all airlines try to put you on another airline offering alternate transportation at the same fare you originally paid. Even Robert Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines and hardly a champion of airline regulation, is in support of such a measure. Unfortunately, we will see a lot of this in the future as airlines continue to eliminate flights from their schedules, and the uncertainty it creates will do nothing to encourage more people to fly.

Regulating Tarmac Delays

Q. I am terrified of being stuck on an airplane for eight hours overnight, which happened to passengers on a flight recently. It's the main reason why I refuse to fly. What is the government doing to make this illegal? Some kind of regulation would get me back in the air and I am sure I am not alone having these feelings.

A. Both houses of the US Congress are considering legislation mandating that passengers have the option of deplaning should a plane get stuck on a taxiway or tarmac for more than 3 hours during departure or upon arrival. The airline industry strongly feels that this would lead to more delays, while proponents believe that the legislation would finally force a solution to the root causes behind these confinements. The bills are by no means assured of passage, although they have support from key members of Congress, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D- Calif.). In order for deplaning to be practical, airports must play a part in offering the necessary infrastructure, such as specialized buses that can rendezvous with airplanes on taxiways (if there are no gates available, passengers obviously can't just jump off the plane and walk across active taxiways to the terminal). Most airports lack these buses, although some, such as Dallas Ft. Worth, are adding them, and working with the TSA, airport concessions, and other stakeholders to accommodate deplaned passengers in emergency situations.

Avoiding Hackers on Airport Wi-Fi

Q. I'm a little wary of airport wi-fi, especially when I have to enter my credit card info and purchase it on the spot. How can I be sure these airport networks are actually secure?

A. You have every right to be concerned. Most people seem to pay very little attention to what network they're joining. Just so long as they can check their mail or bid on that amazing E.T. oven mitt on Ebay (or whatever)- and preferably for free, please. It's that kind of hurried carelessness that makes travelers such easy targets for hacking. So how can you keep your personal information safe and still dilly-dally online before your flight? Our friends over at Smarter Travel have some great tips on how to better protect yourself against scammers.

First Class Upgrade Alerts

Q. I have a ton of frequent flyer miles that I want to use to upgrade to first class. Is there any way to tell when an airline will release unsold first class seats and make them available for upgrade?

A. A really good tool that lets you check if economy class seats are available for upgrade in real time is Expertflyer.com. The site only works with select airlines, including Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Air France, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Qantas, and Swiss (they used to cover United as well, but no longer). Monthly and annual membership is available starting at $4.99 per month. Armed with information about which flights have seats available for upgrade you can then book eligible economy fares and then cash in your miles. They'll also send you alerts to let you know when a seat becomes available for upgrade on flights you specify. We wish more airlines would cooperate with ExpertFlyer.

Well, somebody's gotta pay for the hotel room

Q. A coworker of mine booked a flight on Orbitz to travel from Tampa to Budapest. The itinerary includes flights on US Airways and British Airways. He departs this Friday and received notification last night that his return flight from Washington Dulles to Tampa had been cancelled, and his new flight requires an overnight in Washington. He spoke with both US Air and Orbitz and both refused to allow him to cancel and rebook his ticket, or provide for his hotel in DC. He did purchase trip insurance but we haven't gone so far as to check whether they will pay for the hotel room as it seems clear to me that this is the responsibility of the airline. What do you think?

A. Absolutely, he should be able to cancel his flight and get a full refund. We think that if he is persistent, Orbitz will make this right. However, according to Brian Major, a spokesperson for TravelGuard travel insurance, most travel insurance policies, including many issued by TravelGuard, would cover the hotel stay. In additon, Major states, "Travel Guard's services would help this traveler find the lodging alternative and assist with the flight re-booking." Other insurance companies that offer similar protection are Access America and CSA Travel Protection.

International Bumping

Q. I was slated to fly from Boston to Rome. I arrived at the airport about 2 1/2 hours ahead of my scheduled 6:15 p.m. take-off. After waiting for almost 2 hours in a huge line, airline staff closed off the ticket/boarding pass gates. We were told that they would be with us shortly. After about a half hour, the staff then announced that there was no more room left on this flight! I was bewildered because I had purchased my ticket in April and here it was September. I was among about 10 people who were shut out of this flight because the flight was overbooked. After unsuccessfully trying to put me on a 9:45 p.m. flight on another airline, my options were: 1) Take a flight the next night at 6 p.m. to Milan and then change planes after a layover to Rome; 2) Wait two nights and fly Boston to Rome on a similar flight. I opted for the 1st option. The airline then gave me a 125 Euro ($168 USD) voucher to use on my next flight. My question is, is this common practice and can they be held accountable for this?

 A. The airline may have pulled a fast one here. You were bumped, and according to the US DOT, bumping compensation rules apply to all flights originating in the US, no matter where they're headed. Those rules stipulate compensation ranging from $400 to $800 per passenger, depending on the cost of the ticket and the length of the delay. You would be entitled to the full $800. There's only one condition which may have applied in this case: If the airline substitutes a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay people who are bumped as a result. You should file a complaint with the DOT and go back to the airline and explain that they are not following the rules. Write the DOT at Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75

U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th Street, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20590 or visit online at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/problems.htm.

Two Dogs, One Carry-on

Q. What advice can you give me about flying my two small dogs in the cabin when I fly out of Chicago this fall? Airline policies seem to be all over the place.

A. When you bring a pet into the cabin, the carrier counts as your one piece of allowed carry-on luggage. So it's probably not going to work if you try to bring two carriers on board.

Buying Extra Seats for Extra Room

Q. Next spring my husband and I are flying from Los Angeles to Budapest on British Airways via London Heathrow. Our economy class seats will cost $1020 each round trip and to upgrade to premium economy would cost $2700 per person. Can I buy a third regular economy seat for the two of us (at $1020) and count on having three seats together, using the extra middle seat for some extra comfort?

A. While it's true that buying a middle seat and keeping it empty is a good way to get some "breathing room" on a cramped economy flight, there might be a problem with your plan, in that with the cheapest economy fares, British Airways doesn't give out assigned seats until 24 hours before flight time. If the flight is jam packed, you and your husband might not even be sitting together, and who knows where that expensive empty middle seat will end up. So you may have to buy a more expensive qualifying fare to get the advance seat assignments you desire. Airfarewatchdog has heard many complaints from consumers about this British Airways policy and we do hope they'll change it.

Fares to Europe too high for fall?

Q. What's with flying to Europe this fall? Fares are preposterous. Flying from Boston to Amsterdam last time I checked was $1200 on American Airlines and British Airways. I flew the same route in the spring and got a fare for $650 or so.

A. Airfares can change at any moment, and most of the best deals are unadvertised. Fares to Europe from just about anywhere in the U.S. for fall travel have been unusually high, but there will be sales. When is anyone's guess. And if airlines continue to park planes in the desert, as they've been threatening to, fares will go up. Less capacity means higher fares. Right now, we're seeing November fares from Boston to Amsterdam around $663 round-trip including taxes on Iberia and a bit more on Alitalia, but that's subject to change. Most industry observers do believe that airlines must keep fares high in order to survive, and in order to keep fares high they must reduce the number of seats and planes they fly.

Spirit's $9 Fare Club: Does membership cancel out any savings?

Q. I notice that you regularly list those $9 sales from Spirit Airlines, but to actually book one of those deals, I have to join their $9 Fare Club and pay a membership fee. Seems like a lot of hassle. Doesn't the membership fee negate any savings?

A. Not quite. At $39.95 for a year's membership and a 60-day trial at just $9, you could easily make it worthwhile in just one trip, especially if booking for yourself and your family. Our friends at SmarterTravel break down the costs for you here.

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