5 Things Airlines Say That Might Not Be True

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The FAA's recent shutdown meant the airlines shouldn't have collected some federal taxes. But rather than pass the savings along to customers, many airlines pocketed them. That kind of behavior might be more rule than exception.

When Congress failed to pass a bill re-authorizing the FAA, the airlines were no longer required to collect taxes on ticket purchases. But as we wrote about at the time, rather than pass these 10- to 12-percent savings on to consumers, most airlines – including Delta – initially decided to simply raise their prices by the amount of the taxes and simply pocket the difference.

I mention Delta specifically since it was Delta’s CEO Richard Anderson who criticized another proposed federal ticket tax in Delta’s in-flight magazine in January 2011.  From this article in Business Week:

Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton yesterday referred to a letter Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson wrote to passengers in the January issue of the company’s in-flight magazine, Sky. Anderson wrote that an increase (of federal taxes) would increase ticket prices to an average of $112 per trip for a family of four.

“Increasing the PFC tax would add unnecessary costs for customers and have the very real potential of hampering the industry’s returning demand,” he wrote.

So just a few months ago this CEO was a consumer advocate, but when he had the opportunity to act like one just months later by lowering ticket prices due to the inability to collect federal taxes, suddenly Mr. Anderson wasn’t as concerned about “hampering the industry’s returning demand” as he was adding to Delta’s bottom line.

Recently, Delta announced that it would refund some ticket taxes, but a closer look reveals that this refund only applies to taxes previously collected for travel after the FAA shutdown. And even then travelers must apply for it.

Last week a compromise was reached that ended this particular problem, at least temporarily, but it does show that sometimes airlines will say things that appear aimed more at their bottom lines than yours. Other examples…

1. “Our partner isn’t offering that award.”

Passengers hoping to book a premium-class award ticket with United Airlines miles are frequently told that the partner carrier is not offering the award seat – when in fact that airline did make the seat available, but United Airlines blocked it to save money. This practice was  uncovered by a reporter years ago, but United hasn’t told its staff of this policy, and they continue to blame the other carriers.

2. “You can redeem miles for travel with any of our partners.”

US Airways lists partners such as Royal Jordanian, Qatar, Virgin Atlantic, and Singapore. But don’t try using your miles to book awards with them.

Their partner award chart, released last year, notes in the fine print that awards on Qatar and Royal Jordanian are “temporarily not available.” It also mentions that Virgin Atlantic awards are only available in economy class. Finally, there’s no documentation of this important fact: Singapore only offers partner award seats on the handful of remaining aircraft with an older interior.

3. “The weather caused your delay.”

Isn’t it convenient that the weather seems to cause most delays? That’s because the airlines get to wash their hands of their obligation to provide you with food and lodging in the event of an overnight delay – as long as the problem isn’t related to maintenance, crew scheduling, or other things within the airline’s control.

Some travelers have busted customer service agents who use the weather excuse by consulting their cargo websites, which should also indicate weather problems in relation to flight delays. Some have even hired forensic meteorologists to challenge airlines’ claims.

4. “There are no seat assignments available.”

It’s annoying to try to select a seat online, only to be shown that the good seats are taken or none at all are available. United Airlines will even show an outline of a person sitting in those seats to indicate that they’re “occupied.”

In fact, on most airlines some seats are reserved for passengers with special needs and others might be held for elite-status customers booking at the last minute. They could be honest and indicate this, but instead pretend they’re already taken.

5. “These baggage fees are necessary to offset the high price of oil.”

When oil prices soared in 2007 and 2008, some airlines cited crude prices when they imposed baggage fees and fuel surcharges. By January 2009, oil was trading at 2004 prices, yet those fees were never dropped. Unlike fuel surcharges imposed by the shipping industry, there’s little correlation between airline bag fees and fuel consumed.

The airline industry is a tough business that’s rarely very profitable, but that is not an excuse for them to deceive their customers.

For more ways to save on airline tickets, check out…

Stacy Johnson

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