Why are airlines redefining national borders?

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Is Aruba part of the United States? I’m not the one asking. Hank Roden, a fine art photographer from Urbanna, Va., is, and it’s more of a rhetorical question.

When he tried to check a bag on a recent US Airways flight from Aruba to Miami, a gate agent charged him $25.

But hang on — aren’t checked bags on international flights included in the price of your US Airways ticket? Yes, they are.

“This is not an international flight,” the ticket agent deadpanned as she scanned his passport.

The experience was a little “weird,” Roden said. Why would an airline classify a flight as domestic when it’s obviously not? Could be the money.

Redrawing the map can benefit a travel company in several unseen ways, from giving it a competitive edge to allowing it to collect more fees from unsuspecting passengers.

US Airways has a perfectly logical explanation for what happened to Roden. Airlines classify their international operations differently when it comes to fees. Oddly, the Caribbean is regarded as a domestic operation, which may come as a little bit of a surprise to the good citizens of Aruba. Roden flew there on American Airlines, which has a different bag policy than US Airways, and which may have added to the passenger’s confusion. The two airlines are currently merging operations.

“He was charged correctly,” says John McDonald, a spokesman for both airlines.

If you think that’s odd, then pay attention to your next credit card bill. If you’ve booked a trip with a company based outside the United States — say, an international airline or a hotel based outside of the country — you might find an unpleasant surprise on your statement. It’s a foreign exchange fee, arbitrarily charged if you’re doing business with a company outside the States, even if you’re buying it at home and paying in dollars.

Does it cost the company anything extra? Nope. They define your U.S. purchase as being international, slapping an extra 3% on your bill.

Why? Because they can.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to snag an upgrade on a flight from Atlanta to Honolulu with my family. I spent the first few hours of the flight in the front of the plane. But when I tried to yield my business class seat to my better half, who was in economy class with the kids, a flight attendant blocked my way.

“You can’t do that on an international flight,” she says.

“Hawaii is part of the United States,” I reminded her.

She allowed me to downgrade.

“It’s a semantic game,” says Skip Miller, who’s had an identical conversation with a flight attendant in the past. Now retired from the Air Force, he recalls the U.S. military does the same thing, categorizing assignments in Alaska and Hawaii as “overseas” because they are not physically connected to the lower 48 states.

In talking with travelers, though, it seems this kind of gerrymandering — redrawing national borders to suit a company — usually benefits the company more than the customer.

Pat Volovnik, for example, was recently flying from Philadelphia to Cancun, Mexico, in first class. She decided to stop by the US Airways lounge, since you get access to the lounge when you’re flying first class internationally.

But no. “I was told that unless I paid for a day pass, I would not be able to enter,” says Volovnik, a real estate agent from Philadelphia. “Mexico is considered a domestic flight.”

How can they get away with calling something domestic when it’s not? Stephen Pickford, a travel agent who hosts a Canadian radio show about travel, explains that the practice dates to the days before the current “Open Skies” agreements, when you could clear U.S. immigration in Canada and Mexico.

“Once cleared,” he explains, “they were technically considered to be in the United States.”

It is also clear that travel companies, notably airlines, have exploited the ability to call Aruba or Mexico part of the United States.

Should that be allowed? Of course not. If you buy something with your credit card in the United States, and pay in dollars, you shouldn’t have to shell out a foreign exchange fee — any more than an airline should redraw national boundaries.

Where’s the border patrol when you need it?

Should airlines be allowed to redefine national borders?

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Plan ahead to dodge charges

1. Avoid foreign currency fees.

Some credit cards, notably, Capital One, and credit unions offer cards with no exchange fees. You’ll avoid gerrymandering your card purchases.

2. Look at the airline’s route map.

Many airlines consider Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean “domestic” destinations. Don’t look at the map to determine which policies apply — look at the airline’s route map, and call if you have questions.

3. Argue your case.

John McDonald, a US Airways-American representative, says policies are being “harmonized,” which is a reminder that airlines sometimes redefine their redefined borders. You may be able to argue your way out of paying some fees — but be polite.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    A simple autoprice of an itinerary in GDS displays baggage info.
    If your TA does not give you this info, then you need a better TA.

    Answer continued in my other comment below ….

  • Marcin Jeske

    I had a phone agent once try to explain it to me as a fee covering the increased risk of foreign transactions.

    The idea being that charges from another country were more likely to be fraudulent, that recovery of funds could be more difficult due to the security situation, legal system, or business standards of the foreign country. Essentially, a fraud insurance surcharge for those “risky” purchases outside the golden gates of America.

    Back when the card networks were primarily US-focused, with acceptance in other countries rare and catering to American visitors, I might have bought those arguments. Now, with the main payment networks being central to the economies of most North American and European countries (and down under), and making massive inroad in South America, Asia, and even Africa (though there, cellular networks are first), that reasoning does not pass the smell test.

    As for TravelEx… they are already charging you a fee in the spread between buy and sell prices. Those exchange fees are just icing on the cake, to make people feel they are paying much less for the service then they actually are.

    And they are actually doing more work to exchange $1000. From counting to transport, it’s ten times as much work and ten times the risk. In reality, since I bet they have a lot of fixed costs (staff and locale), the small transaction are probably being subsidized by the larger transactions. If they had to charge everyone by the minute, those small transactions would become very expensive.

  • LFH0

    Chris Elliott’s report that “the U.S. military . . . categoriz[es] assignments in Alaska and Hawaii as ‘overseas’ because they are not physically connected to the lower 48 states” also caught my eye and started me to think. In addition to Alaska, there are two other states for which a portion requires people to go through Canada in order to travel there overland: Minnesota and Washington. It seems to me that if the military were to fly someone to the Northwest Angle Airport in Angle Inlet, Minnesota, then that, too, would constitute an “overseas” assignment.

  • Marcin Jeske

    They are in proud company in declaring Hawaii foreign soil: I seem to recall some folks looking through birth certificates. Not to mention the poor native Hawaiians, who didn’t expect a military coup would lead to the end of a 100-year old kingdom and more than a thousand years of independent living “off the world grid”.

    And really, who hasn’t annexed Aruba yet? First Spain, then the Netherlands, even the British and the US have had their turn.

    I bet that part of the switch to “transatlantic” and “transpacific” is due to the ever complicating situation of the European territory in the Caribbean. Although Miami-Aruba may not be a flight to Europe even though Aruba is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, there are a handful of airports in our hemisphere which are by law in the European Union, both Aruban-neighbor Bonaire and Saint Martin joining them in the past 10 years.

    I get a kick out of getting sent to the International Terminal in SFO on some Alaska Airlines flights to Portland and Seattle… no the Pacific Northwest hasn’t seceded to form the Republic of Cascadia… those Alaska planes flew in from Mexico.

  • Marcin Jeske

    There’s that old lawyer trick (though anyone can play): if disclosure is required, over-disclose and bury them with paperwork.

    I may have the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but if I bury it in 342 pages of rhetoric and exposition, you may never notice it. The spirit of the law would result result in:

    Your flight SFO-NYC: $300 fare, $25 first bag* and $50 second bag* each way, $200 change fee*

    The asterisks could jump to those lovely charts or calculators to see if your elite status or Costco card or beer-of-the-month club gets those fees waived. I have not seen a single airline implement it so cleanly (SW and JB don’t count).

    I am sure Chris hailed the new regs, but it is not hypocritical to ask that what is disclosed not be obfuscated. There is good reason why most people had simplified the pages of rules into a domestic and international litmus test … it made sense and it was simple. I think the gripe is that not only is it still not disclosed very transparently, but that the rules are designed in such a way that there is no way to easily disclose them.

    Of course, Spirit would require an entire chart just to display one fare quote because I can’t think of a clean way to organize all their fees.

  • mikegun

    Regardless, the paragraph is factually incorrect and misleading. How about:

    But hang on — aren’t checked bags on international flights included in the price of your US Airways ticket? In some cases, they are.

  • TonyA_says

    Simple, agressively enforce the US DOT regulation.
    Make every vendor print/display FBA and fee to the selectedd itinerary beside the price.

  • bodega3

    Fare rules are written the same for every fare and for every carrier world wide. Now that the internet allows you to book online, you want the rules written so you don’t have to do what every TA and airline agent has to do…read them. The only fees listed in fare rules are change/cancel fees. Baggage, meals, onboard entertainment, upgrade costs, all are additional costs, not part of a fare rule. A benefit of using a certain credit card is your responsibility to know, not the carriers responsibility to tell you.

  • bodega3

    Good to point it out Tony! What you pay is based on the date of purchase, not the date of travel.

  • bodega3

    They would be charged a research fee. But what takes you hours we find in minutes. Also if you are asking for this type of information, why would you expect them to drop what they are dong, without you paying upfront? Just because you walk in a door and are greeted, doesn’t mean you get priority over those who are ahead of you.

  • omgstfualready

    I’m fairly certain the phone agent does not know about, or fully understand, the infrastructure to handle how things run.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    My Sapphire Preferred card also waives the fees. I think the same for my United credit card.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    there’s a saying in the travel industry: HUCA Hang Up and Call Again.

    If some bureaucrat has the rules they’re following, they’re not going to risk their job to help a total stranger and who can blame them? Would you leave your job in the middle of work to help a traveler you met at the bus stop make his flight? (Actually, this really happened. A co-worker of mine met Miss Ukraine at the bus stop and then just took off his day of work to help her around town without telling his boss. His boss ultimately fired him for not calling in.)

    So hang up and call again. Call the 800 number. Or go to the lounge and see if the concierge can help there. Or twitter. Or go to another desk.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    There’s a funny South Park episode: Cent-I-Pad about the hilarious and tragic consequences of not fully reading the usage agreement before downloading software.

    “You promised me it could learn to read!” — Steve Jobs

    But honestly, I don’t have the time to spend 15 minutes waddling through legalese before I download the latest copy of Safari or activate my google account. This means that Apple probably scans all my emails for marketing purposes. So be it.

  • Taylor Michie

    We can debate the merits of foreign transaction fees all day long, but they’re disclosed and standardized for all purchases on a certain card, so it shouldn’t be a shock to the consumer.

    Not saying that I disagree with your point, but it’s really neither here nor there.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You’re being scanned. Right. Now. {cue evil laughter}

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Not only baggage fees, but also whether to serve alcohol for free on flights. :-)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I wouldn’t mind if they said something such as “call almost anywhere” which is accurate and still provides the context that for most people, it does equate to “anywhere.”

    I’ve had arguments with Carver on this forum before about this, but it’s useful to keep in mind that judges are lawyers and politicians are also usually lawyers so they typically write the law not in a manner that is convenient for consumers or their electorate, but first and foremost to keep judges and lawyers in business quibbling over the law and their big corporate clients ready to pay for the privilege of misdirection. I don’t blame them. It’s self-interest like the real estate industry and Realtors paid to keep prices inflated.

  • Bill___A

    Truth in advertising does not seem to apply in this case. Changing definitions for marketing purposes is not acceptable in my mind. Kind of like sensationalist irrelevant headlines on websites…come to think of it, this is probably not the right forum for this considering Mr. Elliott is the king of misleading sensationalist headlines.

  • LFH0

    Be it the military or the airlines, each should should language and geography correctly. Several years ago there was a frequent flyer promotion by Eastern Airlines: fly seven segments, get a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in North America. I selected a round-trip to Panama because it is geographically part of North America. Although I was concerned that Eastern might use some made-up geography (e.g., only Canada and the United States are part of North America), the airline followed geography correctly and provided me with the award ticket. Kudos to Eastern Airlines.

  • malbarda

    Delta Airlines actively advertises that they offer multi-channel inflight video throughout the plane, electrical outlets in business and economy comfort and lie flat beds in business class on all international flights (and minus the lie-flat beds, the same if offered on most domestic flights). Not the case when you fly NY – Mexico, which – as stated in this article – for some bizarre and random reason is classed as a domestic flight. To make matters worse, on the 5 hour flight you’re treated to some of the oldest planes in the Delta network. On both the outbound and return flight I was on a 20+ year old Boeing 757 in business with in seat flight entertainment on the outbound only. On the return flight there was not even that, there was only overhead projectors throughout the whole plane. On both flights there were no plug points anywhere on the plane and no flat beds in business. Bizarly, both flights offered wifi. You get better DL hardware when flying to LA, San Francisco or Seattle nowadays. I have actually had better on most domestic flights within the US. It feels like DL is treating its Central American customers as second class citizens.