Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Navigating the Unfriendly Skies"

Summer is probably the best time to travel, but the worst to time to fly – especially now. Brace yourself for expensive tickets, delayed flights, cramped planes and minimal service. These scenarios aren’t entirely unexpected, as airlines around the world continue to cut capacity and raise fares to offset the impact of skyrocketing fuel prices. Still, it’s shocking to see how some major US carriers have taken the “nickel-and-dime” approach to a whole new level.

With little fanfare and almost no grace period, American Airlines (AA), United Airlines (UA) and US Airways (US) have begun charging passengers for all checked bags. The first bag would cost you USD 15 while the second one would set you back by another 25 bucks. This move is a slap on the face of many passengers as they are forced to check bags thanks to an increasing list of banned articles (including many toiletry items) in carry-on bags. We warned you about British Airways’ harsh baggage policy a few months ago – but at least BA showed some mercy by letting you check one bag for free.

While the US legacy carriers have exempted their elite members from the new bag fees, they are not so generous on other potential sources of revenue. Although US Airways initiated an award ticket fee ranging from USD 25 to 50, the absurdity was not legitimized until AA, the world’s largest carrier, followed suit by starting charging nearly all USD 5 to redeem a “free” ticket with their hard-earned miles. Many road warriors who cheered AA’s introduction of the world’s first frequent flier program in 1981 now greet the airline’s latest action with jeers.

Not only are “free” tickets no longer free, fliers also have to face steeper fees if they procrastinate. If you book your award seat within 21 days of departure, most US majors slap you with a so-called “close-in” processing fee up to USD 100. You will fork out even more if you need to talk to a live agent for whatever reasons – even if it’s the airline’s fault. Everything here defies logic: If passengers can find award seats closer to departure date, shouldn’t the airlines be happy about shedding some mileage liability? Instead, they reward your loyalty with another hefty fee.

Among the US majors, US Airways has stooped to a new low by taking away the last bit of complimentary in-flight service. Domestic fliers in the US have long stopped expecting free food offered onboard, but now they can also forget about free water and peanuts on US Airways. Flight attendants will happily serve you non-alcoholic beverages if you cough up 2 bucks (USD 7 for anything alcoholic). What’s more, US Airways smashed another cornerstone to the world of frequent flier programs by eliminating bonus flight miles for all elite members.

All the unsettling changes suddenly make the Chinese skies seem a lot friendlier. Planes may be equally cramped and flights are often more prone to delay, but at least you can still buy a ticket from a real human and redeem a last-minute award seat without breaking the bank. That’s what I call a harmonious (flying) society. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 44 of the August 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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