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The New Bullies: Airlines

The New Bullies: Airlines
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BY KITT WALSH

I hate the feeling of being over a barrel, helpless to change things. If feels as though I am being bullied and lately who has been throwing their weight around are the airlines.

As if travel wasn’t stressful enough, some major airlines have decided to block or at least slow us down from comparison-shopping for fares through travel sites like Expedia.com or CheapOAir.com. It turns out that airlines are blocking access to fare and schedule information so that we can’t compare their options alongside their competitions and therefore find the most affordable flights at the most convenient times. This makes flight shopping confusing and low fares harder, if not all together impossible, to find.

So many travelers have complained about this new move by the airlines that even the Department of Transportation has gotten involved. The DOT has said it is examining this “potentially unfair business practice” and to help them do so, they are asking for public comments by December 30th. At airtravelfairness.org, you can sign a petition which reads:

Subject: Stop airlines from hiding fares and hurting consumers

When I book travel, I often use comparison websites to search and purchase airline tickets. I rely on the convenience of finding all my options on one screen.  Plus, when airlines know their fares will be listed next to their competitors, they will be more likely to offer a competitive price.

It’s come to my attention that some airlines are trying to make it harder for me to see all my options by restricting certain websites from publishing fare and schedule information. They shouldn’t get to pick and choose who can share information that’s already publicly available. We need more transparency in the marketplace, not less. Tell the Department of Transportation that you expect them to put consumers first by promoting transparency and fairness in air travel. It’s easy to let them know how important flight comparison-shopping is for you, and that airlines shouldn’t be able to decide who can access publicly available information.

By adding your name to the petition, your message and comments will be sent to the Department of Transportation and your voice added to those who hope to protect their rights to fair treatment from airlines.

And speaking of fairness, in case you haven’t heard, United Airlines is playing up a caste system worthy of old New Delhi.

In January, United Airlines, the third largest carrier in the country will become the first big US airline to limit low-fare customers to one carry-on bag that fits under a seat, disallowing such passengers from using the overhead bins at all.

Customers who purchase a “Basic Economy” fare will only be allowed one carry-on item that can fit under the seat in front of them. Larger bags will need to be checked in for a fee.

To add insult to injury, such passengers will also not be allowed to preselect seats and will be unable to buy seats until the day of departure, meaning families trying to sit together may be split apart, even if they are flying on the same ticket. They’ll be automatically assigned seats at check-in “with no opportunity to change,” and automatically be assigned to group 5, the last passengers to board. The LA Times wrote of this new provision, “Think of it as a ticket to the middle seat.”

Also, any mileage earned under the Basic Economy fair will not be accrued towards elite status in the airlines’ frequent flier program.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer is acting as the voice of those of us who aren’t regular Business or First Class fliers. He is urging the airline to drop the policy, saying in a statement, “The overhead bin is one of the last sacred conveniences of air travel and the fact that United Airlines—and potentially others—plan to take that convenience away unless you pay up is really troubling. Already, airlines charge extra for checked luggage, pillows, peanuts, and headphones, and now you’ll have nowhere to store them.”

Airlines are already making “sky-high profits,” according to Schumer, adding: “United Airlines should reverse this plan and allow the free use of the overhead bin for all.”

Sky-high profits indeed. United’s profits are estimated to increase by $4.8 billion between now and 2020, according to Fortune Magazine.

United is not the first major airline to roll out a “basic” fare. Delta already has done so, though the only amenity its basic passengers give up appears to be seat selection. They don’t have additional baggage restrictions and can still use overhead bin space. American Airlines has announced plans to introduce a no-frills plan next year, but hasn’t offered details yet. It is to be expected however, that unless challenged, the other carriers will soon follow United’s lead in squeezing passengers.

To write an paper letter of protest (recommended by some travel sites), send it to:

United Airlines, Inc. PO Box 06649 Chicago, IL 60606-0649

Or call CEO CEO Glenn F. Tilton at 312-997-8000 or email him at glenn.tilton@united.com.

Speak up and help make the skies friendly again.

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Kitt Walsh owns a web content company, Behind Blogs (http://www.behindblogs.com), is a regular contributor to CNN Money, a public speaker on Social Media, a book editor and ghostwriter, and freelances as a feature writer, editor and marketing consultant for magazines, newspapers and private clients around the world.