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Is this the worst week for air travelers since 9/11?

Victor/Shutterstock
Victor/Shutterstock

From bankruptcies to terrorist attacks, air travelers have seen it all in the last decade or so. But I can’t think of a week that’s been jam-packed with so much bad news for airline passengers since 2001. Maybe you can, but stick with me for a moment while I review the list.

It isn’t just the sequestration problems that are causing unforeseen slowdowns — it’s a confluence of other events, some related to the mandatory cuts, but many not.

FAA furloughs. The government cutbacks provide the bleak backdrop for this week’s events, with the FAA yesterday predicting a wide range of delays. On Tuesday, more than 1,025 delays in the system were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough, according to the FAA. That’s not as bad as some observers who ought to know better had predicted. But there’s still time for things to get much worse.

New change fees. United Airlines and US Airways both raised fees to change a non-refundable airline ticket to $200 for domestic flights, a $50 increase. In other words, it now costs more to change a ticket than to buy one for most passengers. Absurd? You bet. Now the pressure is on Delta Air Lines, the number-two airline, to follow suit. Most industry-watchers believe it will quietly do so before the end of the week. I hope it doesn’t. This is a chance for Delta to differentiate itself and do something pro-consumer, for a change.

TSA delays knife policy. Amid all this chaos, the TSA decided to delay a new rule that would permit small knives on planes. Why? Maybe it didn’t want to add to the furlough confusion. Then again, maybe it has absolutely no idea what it’s doing and is turning tail and running away from what would have probably been a common-sense rule. But who knows?

Tarmac-delay rule may be suspended. But the worst possible news, just in advance of the busy summer travel season, came from the airline industry’s trade group A4A, which has proposed suspending the tarmac-delay rules in the wake of sequestration. Those rules let passengers off the plane if they have to wait for more than three hours. A4A argues it needs more time, given the FAA furloughs.

On days like today, I’m happy to not be flying. Like you, I’m trying to understand the airline industry’s need to increase fees, even as it is flush with profits. (Greed, perhaps?) I’m trying to understand the reason the tarmac-delay rule should be suspended, but the airline industry’s arguments don’t make any sense to me.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say these FAA furloughs are being used to pull a fast one on passengers.

Is this the worst week for air travelers since 9/11?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Hey people are you awake already?

    As a travel professional, I see airlines fare skyrocket and some inland areas of the United States getting screwed mainly because of one reason – lack of competition.

    That phenomenon was caused by our government allowing mergers and acquisitions in the airline industry. For international routes, they have even put aside anti-collusion and monopolistic laws that made this country great. They have allowed very large carriers to form alliances resulting to price fixing with immunity. With fewer airlines around, there is less seating capacity. On the other hand, with more competition there will be more seating capacity because more airlines will have to fly at least one flight on the routes. Anyone who works (or worked) for an airline knows that they have a n+1 capacity problem. Adding a flight means having to fill it up or lose money (so they offer lower fares to fill up the flight). It is easier to reduce capacity when there is LESS competition (or collusion). To me reducing capacity could not be easily done without the gov’t. allowing mergers. Now with reduced capacity (or with low or no growth in new capacity) what you get are full flights. It is harder to find seats, seating families together, take in hand carries, get re-accommodated for missed connections, and find awards because of this one reason.

  • http://first2board.com/ first2board

    I’m about to head to airport now to fly PHX-DCA and wonder what awaits. You’re exactly right though – this is a horror week for flyers.

  • Dave Thunder

    Just completed a RT MSP-SLC-ONT trip and didn’t experience any delays, other than a few extra slow-pokes in the TSA line who still, to this day, can’t understand why they’re unable to carry their full-size bottles of hair spray.

  • MarkKelling

    UA also changed their Economy Plus refund terms. Previously, you could get a refund of your E+ fee if you ended up not sitting in one of those seats. Now, you only get the refund if your flight is cancelled or there is equipment change that results in there being no E+ seats on the plane. So when the gate agent moves you from the E+ seat you paid up to $225 extra for on just that segment to the middle seat in the last row to accommodate a family that can’t be split, that’s just too bad for you. For most other businesses this would be considered fraud when the company sells you something they can’t provide and refuses to refund what you paid.

    Airlines will just keep piling on fees until people quit flying with them. And how is that going to happen when there are fewer and fewer options when you just have to fly? Even Southwest is changing its tune and bragging about how they are not the lowest priced anymore. I guess when you change from the new guy fighting for every route and even congressional attempts to kill your business to the one moving the most passengers every day, you can do that.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thank you for speaking out for us in “flyover country” aka “some inland areas of the United States”. I’m looking at a trip east to finish off my state capitals east of the Mississippi and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a whole lot easier just to drive. My alternative is to fly in to someplace like Philadelphia from Omaha, rent a car and then fly out of Richmond, VA, which means I have to deal with the hassle and cost of a 1-way car rental and a multi-city itinerary with less-served airports.

    It might cost me 2 extra days of driving, but I won’t have to deal with the “joys” of flying and renting a car. And, I can pack as much Diet Coke as I want! :)

  • MarkKelling

    It never fails to amuse me (why not be amused when getting angry does nothing to change the situation) seeing the people going through security who are wearing metal studded clothing and they get upset when the scanner/metal detector goes off. Or the people wearing knee high boots and seem completely surprised when they have to remove those boots even after being in line for 15 minutes hearing the TSA repeat over and over you have to take off your shoes (boots are not shoes?). Oh well.

    Oh and Frontier Airlines sent out an email stating you should arrive an additional 30 minutes early to the airport because of the FAA cutbacks (not TSA cutbacks, specifically FAA cutbacks). How is that related? Your flight is being delayed so you need to be there extra early to just hang around? Oh well again.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    What! I’m just waiting to see *that* story now: “This man wouldn’t change seats so my family could sit together unless I gave him $225 cash.”

  • Carrey

    I absolutely do not have any problem with airlines trying to fnd ways to gain revenue and stay alive. Have you actually done the research regarding air fares today?

    We have come to take for granted the service airlines provide to us. Getting us from point A, to point B in a safe and efficient manner. Think about it. Would you rather take the bus? Constantly demanding that we deserve lower fares, and then expect the airlines to survive and provide a safe travel experience on a shoe string budget is absolutely crazy!

    These airlines are there to provide a service which we have come to take for granted. They are a business. They have every right to try and make a profit. Because of all the trials and tribulations that has befallen the airline industry in the last couple of decades, we have fewer airlines. And with fewer airlines, we have fewer opportunities to make a choice. If things do not change, soon there will be no competition, and then you will have the scenario of skyrocketing airfares which will make it very difficult to justify any real value in air trsavel. So why bother to even be in business?

    The climate has changed, Fees are here and if it means that it keeps me safe and warm, and gets me to where I want to be in a blink of an eye, I am happy to pay up. Air travel is still a fantastic value and I feel lucky every time I have the opportunity to take advantage of it.

    Now, regarding the other points you make, we have only ourselves to blame for that mess becasue we elected, and tolerate the individuals who are currently in government who are directly responsible for this sequestration disaster.

  • TonyA_says

    Also the way I read UA refund rules, if you booked that UA flight as a CODESHARE, you are not entitled to a refund. So for example, I book my passengers to Europe on LH codeshares using UA operated flights and buy Econ + seating upgrades, and then UA changes the flights around and they lose E+ seating; then sorry your E+ fees are up in smoke.

  • http://bidontravel.com/mobile/index.html Don Nadeau

    When the White House cannot gather enough money for an Easter egg hunt out of the trillions spent, you know some political grandstanding is going on. This week, we not the little children are the victims.

  • SoBeSparky

    Rather than chime in that Chicken Little is right and that this is the worst of times, I would like to offer constructive help to those who are seeking relief from the increasingly onerous fees, charges and rules.

    First, let me make it clear than stating readily available facts does not make me an “apologist” for anyone or anything. Making sweeping opinionated assertions would possibly make one an apologist.

    OK, American Airlines offers tiered economy fares based on what you feel you need. In other words, you tailor your needs and they give you a fare. There are three levels, Choice (regular deep-discount economy with all the onerous shenanigans), Choice Essential (a few important improvements) and Choice Plus (almost as good as the fully flexible fare).

    Simply as a random sample, I pulled up fares for a month from now (May 21-May 24) from MIA to LGA, a heavily traveled route. You can pay the cheapo $316 r/t, or go up one step to Choice Essential and pay $384 r/t. For that $68 you get one checked bag, no charge for changes and Group 1 boarding both ways. For another $20, or a total of $404, at the Choice Plus level you get the Essential features plus same day standby, same day flight change and a premium beverage.

    Disregarding whether these are competitive fares because they change all day every day, this system means you only pay for what you need. Thus, if you are uncertain about future changes to your itinerary, rather than pay the fully flexible fare (or the change fee of $200), you can pay a smaller premium to get a checked bag and no charge for changes, subject to AA’s fine print terms and conditions.

    The worst case scenario, paying a $200 change fee on some airlines, is not your only option. Educated consumers can avoid many of the problems ombudsman Christopher handles every day.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I would be that guy. I witnessed this stupidity on my most recent flight on my least favorite route. Di$ney bound family of three had two seats together and one a few rows back. They ABSOLUTELY ALL HAD TO SIT IN THE SAME ROW. They held up the flight while they tried to get people to move until the on board leader said these obnoxious twits didn’t sit down, they’d have to be removed.
    Of course, the mother screams that she will call the news stations about being put off a plane because she insisted on sitting with her family!

    I don’t see why ONE parent and the child (school age…maybe 8) couldn’t sit together while the other parent sat further back. But y’know, they’re entitled Di$ney Twits so…

  • TonyA_says

    I want to add that you can go up to West Palm Beach (PBI) and take JetBlue to LaGuardia or JFK for cheaper than that on most days. You get one bag FREE, No overbooking ever, and $100 change fee if needed. Florida is NYCs other hometown. Even my partner has FL plates in his cars here in NYC :) AND MOST IMPORTANTLY you get 34″ seat pitch. So forget those cramp AA seating.

  • James Orth

    since i only fly if there is no other option i really could care less about air travel

  • Raven_Altosk

    I still say we ditch cabotage laws. I’d love to fly Cathay Pacific as a domestic airline….

  • 219kimrod

    Two years ago I flew Charlotte – Vienna on USAir for under $900; last year it was $1,400; this year it is $1,900. Same week, same routing, double the price. Can’t wait to see what happens when we have even less competition on flights from Charlotte after the US/American merger.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I agree. I think we should get rid of the airline cabotage laws. The sooner, the better.

  • TonyA_says

    Do politicians ever listen to many Americans like you?

    Of course not, they are flying on “courtesy” private jets.

    Who was that comedian whose favorite line was “what a country” (with a Russian accent)? Maybe he is correct …

    Oh, it was Yakov Smirnoff . Since he lives in Missouri now, I’m sure his inland fares are quite high like yours. :)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I would be that gal. But your posts are more fun to read!

  • SoBeSparky

    Correct, Tony, there are lots of options, most importantly FLL. If you live in Kendall or Homestead, though, MIA is your only option if you value your time.

    I use FLL a lot, but for international and long-stay trips, I use MIA so I pay no parking fees. Also, a rush-hour departure from FLL or PBI means you must trust the vagaries of I-95 traffic and frequent accidents. If it rains, all bets are off. (South Florida residents drive worse in rain than northern residents drive in ice and snow.)

  • TonyA_says

    That will be the day – when politicians actually do something good for ordinary US citizens like us. But watching them grandstand after Newtown, CT and Boston, MA; I am pretty sure they do not have the interest of common Americans at heart. I care more about what really hits our pocket book, job (income) losses, and the high cost of educating (and feeding) our kids in college rather than those crazy gun and homeland insecurity discussions they are having. Enough already. There are too many Americans hurting because of the lack of (or expensive basic) things. And yes airline travel is BASIC. I have to fly to visit my ailing mother. I am sure there are millions of Americans like me. I guess I have to shut up now and work harder …

  • cjr001

    I can’t really say it’s the worst week or not.

    I flew a week after the liquid bomb plot, so I got to see the massive overreaction first hand. And let me tell you, being on a 12 hour flight and having to wait for the flight attendants to come around with water every couple of hours and not being able to have any of your own brought on board really sucked.

    But I also just flew over the weekend, and did not see any of the furlough problems; it sounds like that’s mostly been a problem on the coasts so far. I’ve read that international flights coming into LAX are being held up for hours due to delays at customs.

    TSA is TSA, so nothing they do makes any sense anyways.

    However, the tarmac-delay rules are something everybody should be concerned about, because the airlines are probably drooling over the possibility of being able to hold us all hostage again.

  • SoBeSparky

    That is why the TSA Pre-Check lane makes so much sense. Experienced travelers usually can get through security much faster. Twice or four-times-a-year travelers naturally forget about the exact requirements.

  • cjr001

    That’s amusing, Dave, as I had somebody behind me in the security line at Reno get stopped for the same thing: a full-size bottle of hair spray.

    In another line, somebody was joking with TSA about how they expect to have their bag searched because they carry on a bowling ball (Reno’s a big place for bowling, apparently). Which makes me wonder: a heavy bowling ball is ok to bring on board a plane, but not a baseball ball? Yeah, that’s TSA.

  • MarkKelling

    Yep, really like that exclusion “may not apply to codeshare flights not operated by UA.”

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    It’s all perception. Baseball bats have been used in the past as weapons (not necessarily on planes) so they could be I suppose. Not sure I’ve heard of a bowling ball attack, though I’m sure there’s been one somewhere.

    Reminds of an old Peanuts comic strip. Back in the day a hockey player was charged with a crime of assault with a deadly weapon (a hockey stick). So, in the Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown asked someone what they thought of that, and the reply was interesting…”in all my years of playing baseball, I’ve never been hit with a hockey stick”.

    I get searched a lot because I carry on my camera/computer gear. But not always. No rhyme or reason … probably never will understand it.

  • skygirl123

    Did you know that 9/11 terrorists used knives and box cutters? That is why the airline employees, customers, sky marshalls and the airline exec’s themself said… NOOOOOO. How would you like to be stabbed or have your throat cut by any sick individual? If you have not noticed more and more people are freaking out on the airplanes. What are you a golfer or something? Just so you know Golf club bags do not fit into carryon guidelines anyhow.
    Sorry!

  • skygirl123

    Believe me if Cathey Pacific was allowed to fly here they would face the same fare crisis… oh but maybe not! Their Government subsidizes them!

  • skygirl123

    How long would it take you to get there driving (LOL) or by boat. Flying costs money.

  • bodega3

    Your variation of pricing could be due to a number of thing, Availability, which you don’t see online, day of the week on the current published low fare which you all don’t see online, and season. The shoulder season for lower fares have changed due to changes in school schedules.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Makes sense to me. The most often you do something, presumably the better, or more familiar, you are.

  • cahdot

    the government is pulling a fast one on all of us..and we put up with it…. there is are budget cuts JUST NO INCREASES so they must work with what they have not to expect more ans moreAND MORE FROM US TAXPAYERS

  • Lindabator

    Delta is doing the same!

  • crash025

    Completely opening up the businesses won’t do the trick. I believe it’ll become a race to the bottom. Allow up to say 3 stops within the country. That’ll really mess with the industry.

  • frostysnowman

    My family and I were planning to go to Europe this summer until we were told it would cost either $1600 or 130,000 miles per person to get there. So we are going to some places in the US instead. We found out one of the reasons the airfares to Europe are so high has to do with a huge carbon tax put in place by the EU a while back, on all flights going into the EU. The airlines are charging it back to consumers with higher fares. We recently discovered that you can get better fares by flying into Turkey (not part of the EU) and taking a train into the European countries fromt there.

  • frostysnowman

    This is correct, especially regarding the FAA furloughs. My brother is a programmer who works on the software that runs the air traffic control system, and he said the FAA did not get their budget cut, they got their increased budget cut. It still has the same amount of operating funds as it did in 2012, so the furloughs and closings are…well, I can’t say exactly what he did because I don’t want to get my comment removed. But Ray LaHood is pulling a fast one on us.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    Still, isn’t that part of the problem? The secret formula pricing that can fluctuate greatly without an obvious answer as to why? Wave the magic wand, get a different price.

    A 111% price increase in 2 years would seem extreme….

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    I’m taking the QM2. Seven days to cross the Atlantic in high style, disembark, fly to France, two weeks there, then fly home (fly home for free, thanks to all my unused miles). And no TSA.

  • frostysnowman

    I think you are right about the family being split up based on the age of the child. Threatening to alert the media didn’t help their cause, I’m sure. But let’s just call a twit a twit without brininging Disney into it. I say that because I love Disney, but do not consider myself a twit. And I can drive there. :-)

  • bodega3

    There isn’t a secret formula, there is just no information to you the online booker to see what you are looking at and what you can do to try and find a lower fare. I see it daily in my GDS. I see all fares, have the rules and see live availability for the class of service I can book to get the lowest fare. You don’t see live availability online and you don’t see all the fares with rules until you book something and then you can click on the rule of what you just booked. The fare basis often tells me before I even look at the rule if it applies to the day of the week my client is thinking of traveling by a letter or number in the fare basis. The information is available to me, but not to you and THAT is why people don’t know what they are doing as a DIY’er and often pay more than they have to.

  • bodega3

    There is still security at the cruise terminal.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    “There is still security at the cruise terminal.”

    I know. But nothing like at the airport.

  • bodega3

    Do you mean layovers or connections? Domestically, you don’t find layovers in the rules of the fare on most domestic fares for any country. Those are for visitors.

  • bodega3

    As being a seller of tickets, I don’t think these laws should change.

  • MarkKelling

    Sounds like fun. Hope it is an enjoyable trip.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Thanks! We’re practically salivating with anticipation.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    If it’s kept from me before I buy, I would consider it a secret. You are in on the secret. ;) Actually, I’m sure there is a lot going on behind the scenes I don’t know about. I accept that. However, it doesn’t help the DIY’er when all you see is dates, times, routing and the price. If I knew the rules, I could make better choices.

  • cjr001

    Did you know that 9/11 only succeeded not because of knives and box
    cutters, but because they were able to gain access to the cockpit?

    And how would you like to be choked to death by any sick individual? It can happen now! Oh noes! Quick, remove all hands before you get on the plane!

  • TSAisTerrorism

    They electronically strip search and/or fondle genitals at cruise ports?

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Did you know that there are knives and box cutters already in the airport and on airplanes? This tempest in a teapot is much ado about nothing.

  • crash025

    Connections.

  • crash025

    Nope. They tend to have PR campaigns to respond to constituent contacts.

  • bodega3

    Yes, knowing the rules would help, but the carriers and OTA know all shoppers care about is price so that is what they dangle in front of you. Also not having live availability doesn’t help you either. They also don’t give you all your options on flights either. They don’t have to, but they do in the GDS.

  • bodega3

    You can get 3 connections. I have booked those for clients.

  • crash025

    You can get BA to go LHR->BOS->CLT->ATL?

  • bodega3

    Their first port of entry in the US is where their true segment stops and you can use a code share to continue on. Just like taking UA from SFO to LHR to FRA to CPH. The last two segments will be on a European carrier code share.

  • bodega3

    I am sure you can test it on your next cruise.

  • Raven_Altosk

    See, I fly to MCO a lot and I encounter these idiots who check their brains on the way to vacation. That, and I’ve had my fair share of Di$ney trips where I’ve encountered stupidity in action.

    Also, my fiancee was even a CM at one point. Want to get her started? Ask her about people who would complain that it was raining and demand refunds. SERIOUSLY?!?! And then ask her about the GAC and GAC Abuse…it’s like…all I can do to get her to drink some wine and calm down at that point…

  • http://bidontravel.com/mobile/index.html Don Nadeau

    Such a wonderful way to travel. Have done it twice, but not on the QM2. You will arrive with near zero or zero jet lag. Enjoy!

    You might want to consider taking the Eurostar train to France from London.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    We would have done the Eurostar if we were doing Paris first, but we’re spending the first week in Brittany/Normandy and the 2nd in Paris. So we’re flying straight to Rennes from Southampton.

  • Extra mail

    And, of course, none of the furloughs will be taking place in D.C. I wonder why?

  • frostysnowman

    I believe you!

  • Alan Gore

    What’s wrong with being able to sell tickets on a larger selection of airlines? Increased consumer choice, especially on airlines like Singapore or Emirates, means more people will fly.

  • Susan

    If UAL did that to me, I’d try contesting it on my credit card. I would expect the card holder to back me up on a contest based on not getting a paid-for service.

  • pauletteb

    A whole lot of people don’t agree with you that allowing small knives on planes is “common sense.”