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Entries during 2010-12

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.

Airplanes Wasting Gas

Q. On my flight yesterday, the pilot came on the PA about halfway through the flight and announced that the plane was doing very well with little head winds so the speed flaps (or whatever they are called) on the wings would be up for the rest of the flight. He said they needed to burn off some excess fuel before we landed. Why is this? Why would they intentionally waste fuel?

A. Sounds pretty crazy with the high gas prices these days that airlines would simply dump fuel, but it is indeed true. It all has to do with weight. Airplanes have a maximum take-off weight and a maximum landing weight. If the plane lands too heavy, it could be unsafe and do damage to the plane. Dumping passengers or bags just wouldn't fly (no pun intended), so the aircraft dumps fuel. Not all aircraft are able to dump fuel, so they would simply burn it by circling around until they reach a safe landing weight. This is not a normal occurrence. It is usually done during unscheduled landings, such as emergencies, when the aircraft needs to land immediately, thus not burning the fuel it would have normally used en route. In your case, the little head wind resulted in the plane's "miles per gallon" being more efficient and it needed to burn more fuel once it was in range of your destination in order to reach a safe landing weight.

American Out of Orbit

Q. I recently got a really great deal on Orbitz flying American Airlines.  Problem is I need to change the dates on my tickets.  I read the news today that Orbitz is no longer selling tickets for American Airlines.  Is my ticket still valid?  How can I make any changes?  Why did American remove their fares from Orbitz?

A. Yes, your ticket is still valid.  Orbitz is no longer selling American tickets as of December 21, 2010.  If you bought the ticket before that date, it will still be valid.  However, if you need to make any changes to your itinerary, you'll have to contact AA reservations at 1-800-233-7300.  More information can be found here.  And why?  We'll tell you why.

Will Recent Fat Finger Fares be Honored?

Q. I recently received several airfare alerts by email that American Airlines had dropped fares to Europe to under $300 roundtrip including taxes for winter travel. By the time I could make a decision, the fares were gone. Was this what they call a “fat finger fare” and did American honor the fares if so? Also, any chance that these deals will be repeated? I also read online that there was a “mistake” promo code deal on Expedia that allowed travelers to get air and hotel packages in Las Vegas for nothing. Were those honored?

A. It does appear that there was some kind of computer glitch on the afternoon of November 30 that lowered fares to Europe on American. Fares from New York to Madrid, for example, were $260 round-trip including taxes, which is unheard of. Possibly, American lowered fares but also forgot to include fuel surcharges, which typically add $300 or more to European airfares. Judging from emails we received soon after, American did indeed honor these fares, but as you saw they disappeared in just a few hours. It used to take airlines longer to correct “mistake” airfares but now they appear to be able to correct them more quickly, and most airlines now have language in their contracts of carriage that they will not honor such fares, although in order to avoid ill feelings they usually will not cancel tickets that have already been bought. Expedia also had a blooper deal recently, with a promo code that was only supposed to apply to travel on more expensive packages from Canada but ended up being applicable to cheaper packages within the U.S. Many consumers ended up traveling for zilch (airfare and hotel), and it does appear that Expedia honored these deals. Humans being humans, it wouldn’t surprise us to see fat finger fares happen again. Whether airlines and online travel agencies will continue to honor them is anybody's guess.

Route Monopoly Drives Fares Sky High

Q. I recently had to book a flight between Newark and Boston for business and wanted to take a nonstop. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Continental was charging $423 one-way, with tax, for flights in December. What’s going on here? I’ve never paid that much. I could literally fly to London for less. Is this the result of consolidation? I ended up taking the subway (PATH train) to Manhattan, and then the NYC subway to New York’s JFK airport, where I caught a $56 one-way flight to Boston on JetBlue. I will not be gouged like that.

A. This is indeed what happens when airlines have a virtual monopoly on a route. Only Continental flies Newark to Boston nonstop. Perhaps when United and Continental finally merge, Continental will have to give up some gates at Newark and another airline will fly that route, which is crying out for some competition. It will be interesting so see what happens to fares on routes formerly served nonstop only by both Continental and United, such as Newark to Chicago, and Denver to Newark.


Tight Connections, Part Two

Q. I just read your previous Q&A about tight connecting flights.  We had an experience with a flight this year.  We came back from Europe on Delta and we had a flight change in San Francisco.  They gave us 50 minutes between flights.  We were very lucky as our flight out of San Fransciso was 2 ½ hours late.  We found out that the connecting time starts when the wheels hit the ground.  It took 10 minutes to get to the gate and 25 minutes to get off the plane.  We then had to pick up our luggage and that was 30 minutes.  Then we had to go through customs and that took 30 minutes.  We then had to take our luggage to the baggage chute and that was another 10 minutes.  It took us another 20 minutes to get to the gate.  In total that was 2 hours and 8 minutes.   What is wrong with the airlines?  They should know better.

A. That’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer other than flights with longer connecting times were fully booked, or the fares were higher on those flights. But airlines should know better, and maybe that’s why more and more travelers are booking with travel agents, who do know better. A good travel agent would never have allowed you to accept a connection time of 50 minutes at San Francisco between an international flight and a domestic flight. You can protect yourself next time by requesting a longer connection window.

Discounted Fares: Get 'em while they last!

Q. Late last Tuesday evening, I opened an email sent by you earlier that afternoon regarding an American Airlines sale to Europe. I was specifically interested in the JFK-Barcelona fare for $260. When I click on the vendor links provided in your fare details, the cheapest flight is more than double what you claim. Do seats really go that quickly?

A. That was an amazing sale, and we're sorry you missed out! To answer your question, yep, seats really do go that quickly! As we've said before, fares can change up to three times a day, and you can be pretty sure that an abnormally low fare (esp. a transatlantic for under $300)  isn't going to stick around for long. Think of these unadvertised sale fares like a clearance rack at a store, with just a few of the right color and size left, and a competitive mob of shoppers rummaging through the pile for the bargain that suits them best. Show up at 5 to a sale that started at 9, and chances are you'll be left to pick through the dregs. Velvet leopard-print unitards (with epaulets) in size XXXXXL, and size 14 shoes! That's why we suggest opening your emails as soon as possible, and of course following us on Twitter!

Airlines with Seat Back TV

Q. Which airlines flying domestically now have seat back satellite television at all seats? My kids behave much better if they can watch TV while flying. I know JetBlue has live television with many channels on all flights but I’m wondering if other airlines do as well.

A. In additional to JetBlue, Frontier and Virgin America have satellite TV at all seats. Delta offers this service on some of its planes. Continental hopes to have it in over 200 of its planes by 2011, but charges $6 per flight, as does Frontier.

You can also find this info on, as well as any other advantages/disadvantages about your seat and flight.

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