Cancellations? Bankruptcy? What's an airline passenger to do?

 
Published4/26/2008 11:01 PM

It's been bad news for air travelers the last few weeks. ATA, Aloha Airlines, Skybus and Oasis suddenly ceased flying, and thousands of flights on Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines were abruptly canceled due to maintenance issues. These events left hundreds of thousands stranded or with worthless tickets (which hopefully has been resolved by the time you read this).

Frontier Airlines filed for bankruptcy but continued operating. Will there be more bankruptcies? Probably. Any airline whose stock is selling per share for the price of the Sunday newspaper looks like a sure bet to fail. Airlines exclusively flying smaller commuter jets, which are not cost effective when oil is selling at $110 a barrel, might be in trouble.

 

And there's little doubt that the current crisis, brought on by the credit crunch, oil prices and a looming recession, will push airlines into shotgun mergers. Soon after the recent spate of bankruptcies, Delta and Northwest resumed their merger talks. When that marriage takes place we'll probably see Continental, United and US Air seek similar arrangements, while American might consider buying a smaller partner (Frontier? Alaska? It's anyone's guess at this point). And that will mean -- at least until some well-meaning, but misguided, entrepreneurs start another JetBlue or SkyBus -- layoffs and higher fares.

One of the things ATA, Aloha and Skybus passengers can do is contest the charge with their credit card companies, in writing within 60 days of the date that the bill showing the charge is mailed to you.

If your trip is very important, you might hedge your bets by buying an additional (admittedly expensive) fully refundable fare on a backup airline. If you're afraid your American flight from Chicago to New York might be canceled, buy a refundable fare on United for the same travel dates. If your discounted American flight takes off, great; just get a refund on the United fare. But if American is a no go, you'll get to your event on time. Sure, that refundable ticket will cost a small fortune, but so will missing your $3,000 cruise or failing to close the deal of a lifetime.

If Southwest flies where you're going, buy a backup ticket on it (assuming its recent troubles are behind it). Southwest allows passengers to re-use their non-refundable tickets on another flight within a year from purchase with no penalties, and the fare can be applied to any route, not just the one originally reserved.

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During the recent American cancellation mess, the airline did attempt to put travelers on other airlines at American's expense. But with so many stranded, and so few empty seats on other airlines, this wasn't always possible. A lot of vacations were impaired; a lot of business meetings, weddings and reunions didn't happen.

The sad fact is that in the U.S., airline passengers have no government-granted rights when airlines cancel flights, even if the cancellation could have been prevented by the airline. (In Europe, it's a different story; check www.aviation.com/travel/071105-afwd-consumer-protection-in-europe.html. Even U.S. passengers are protected by government regulations if they're flying from or within the European Union.)

About the only thing passengers can fall back on is something called Rule 240 (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20696593/), a regulation that used to be enforced by the government. It now exists only in some airlines' contracts of carriage (www.airfarewatchdog.com/UsersGuide/InfoCenter/ContractsofCarriage/tabid/74/Default.aspx), often in a watered-down form. Alaska, Northwest and United, for example, state in their contracts that, in the event of a carrier-caused delayed or canceled flight, they will put you on another airline if it will get you to your final destination sooner than the next flight on their own system. But most airlines, especially those formed after deregulation, such as Southwest and AirTran, never had a Rule 240 in their contracts.

And don't forget travel insurance. In these perilous times, it can be a traveler's best friend.

Get free round trip on JetBlue Airways

JetBlue Airways is offering a truly worthwhile offer: up to $75 off any fare and up to 100 TrueBlue frequent-flier points good for a free round trip anywhere it flies.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Go to the "Try Jet Blue" page (www.jetblue.com/deals/tbpromo/enrollment.aspx?promoID=47&hasPromoCode=false) on JetBlue's site and register for the offer. Use any American Express Card to buy a round trip on JetBlue for travel May 1 to June 18, and you'll receive 50 TrueBlue frequent-flier points, half of what's needed for a round-trip flight on JetBlue.

But wait, there's more. You'll also get $25 off that fare. But wait, there's even more. Sign up for the JetBlue Amex Card and you'll get an additional 50 points (and thus a free flight), plus an additional $50 off in the form of a statement credit on your new Amex card.

Clearly, this is a recession-buster deal, and can only mean that airline traffic is headed for a slump. But what the heck, you can be sure that we'll be registering and flying somewhere, even if it's just to Buffalo.

Unlike other airlines, which charge more points or miles for certain destinations compared to others, JetBlue costs the same 100 points to fly from New York JFK to Buffalo as it does from, say, San Francisco to St. Maarten. So it probably all evens out for the airline, but if you're flying an "expensive" route then you really make out like a bandit.

Earning points is another matter: You get 2 points for a short flight, 4 for a medium one and 6 for a long one; but you get double points when you book on JetBlue's Web site. Points don't expire if you obtain and use the JetBlue Amex Card, another reason for signing up.

To apply or for full details, visit www.jetblue.com/trueblue/FF_About.aspx.


Reach George Hobica at hobica@gmail.com, Kim Liang Tan at KimLiangTan@aol.com
or log on to www.airfarewatchdog.com.

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