Chicago Sun-Times
With Lori Rackl

April 2010 Archives

DALLAS (AP) -- Southwest Airlines Co., which bumped more passengers than any U.S. carrier last year, has been fined $200,000 for violating rules on kicking passengers off oversold flights.
The Transportation Department said Tuesday that it reviewed passenger complaints and found many cases of Southwest failing to promptly pay bumped passengers and give them written notices of their rights.
Airlines are allowed to sell more seats than they have because some passengers don't show up.
In other businesses, that would violate laws against deceptive sales tactics. Airlines get a break under the theory that they can offer lower fares if they don't get stuck with empty seats because of no-shows.
Last year, Southwest bumped 13,113 passengers -- 80 percent more than the next closest carrier. However, Southwest carried the most U.S. passengers, and travelers faced a greater chance of being bumped on some other airlines, with American's regional affiliate, American Eagle, being the worst.
Federal rules require airlines to first ask for volunteers who will give up their seats in exchange for compensation. After that, airlines can begin to bump passengers who bought tickets. Most passengers bumped from flights are entitled to up to $800 in cash.
Airlines are required to give bumped passengers a written statement detailing their rights and explaining how the airline decides who gets bumped when flights are oversold.
The airlines can offer travel vouchers but only after telling the passengers that they are entitled to get cash or a check instead, and the amount that they're owed.
In a consent order, the Transportation Department said it would waive $90,000 of the civil penalty if Southwest doesn't break the rules again in the next year. Also, Southwest can use $20,000 of the fine to develop ways to notify passengers of their rights and the airline's policy on overselling flights.
In the consent order dated Tuesday, the company said it mostly follows the rules -- the number of violations was not disclosed -- but would provide more training for employees to improve compliance. The airline also said it would give customers more notice of their rights when they buy tickets on the company website.
Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said the alleged violations involved "a small percentage" of the airline's flights.
"However, we take every violation seriously and are working to improve our procedures to ensure full compliance with DOT regulations and to provide the best possible experience for all of our customers," she said.

Several Florida newspapers today were reporting that discount carrier Spirit Airlines -- already taking heat for wanting to charge extra for carry-on luggage -- is now doing away with reclining seats.

A colleague of mine forwarded me the news along with a question: Are these guys trying to put themselves out of business?

From the Sun Sentinel:

Spirit's two new Airbus 320 aircraft feature "pre-reclined" seats, spokeswoman Misty Pinson said Tuesday. That means even Spirit passengers who want to pay for reclining airline seats won't have that option.

The Miramar-based airline put the first A-320 into service on March 14 for the Fort Lauderdale-Washington, D.C., route. The other arrived last week and currently is being used on flights between Fort Lauderdale and New York's LaGuardia airport. Two more A-320s will join the company's fleet this summer, and both will feature the "pre-reclined" seat design, Pinson said.

Some Spirit passengers are complaining the new planes leave them more cramped than ever.

"I hate sitting upright," said Eve Greene, who recently traveled from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to New York's La Guardia airport on Spirit's new A-320. "It felt cheap and uncomfortable."

Greene said she was confused and frustrated by the fact that the seats didn't recline. The aircraft she took on her return flight Tuesday had reclining seats, and Greene said there's a "big difference" in terms of comfort.

Spirit argues this is a way to keep airfares low, and who doesn't like low airfares?

What do you think? Is this going too far?

A fellow journalist wrote me an email over the weekend about a couple he knows who were headed to Mozambique via London Heathrow but had their flight canceled because of the Iceland's volcano situation.

This couple made a new booking for two weeks from now, but it cost them an additional $1,500 on top of what they originally paid. Had they tried to go one week after the original departure, it would have cost them $4,500 more than what they originally paid when they booked their cheap fare months ago.

A lot of attention has been given to the amount of money airlines are losing, but what about the high price a lot of travelers are facing as they scurry to rebook flights, hotels, etc.?

Are you a traveler who's on the hook for thousands more thanks to the volcano? Share your story here...

Spirit Airlines will charge as much as $45 each way for a carry-on bag, adding a fee that bigger airlines have yet to try.
The charge will apply to bags in the overhead bin. Personal items that fit under the seat will still be free. Spirit said it will add measuring devices at the gates to determine which carry-ons are free and which ones will incur the charge.
The new charge is $45 if paid at the gate, and $30 if paid in advance, and begins Aug. 1. Spirit said on Tuesday that it reduced its lowest fares by $40 on average, so most customers won't really pay more to fly.
Spirit also charges to check luggage.
Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said having fewer carry-on bags will help empty the plane faster. He said the idea is to get customers to pay for individual things they want, while keeping the base fare low.
"The beauty of it is they will do what they think is best for them and will now have the choice," he said.
Spirit is based in Miramar, Fla., and most of its routes run through Fort Lauderdale to Latin America.
Even though it's a minor player, bigger airlines are likely to watch to see whether customers are willing to pay for carry-ons. None of the major carriers made any immediate changes to their fees on Tuesday morning.
Fees for checking bags on the big U.S. carriers got started in 2008. At first, many travelers thought they wouldn't last. But now all the big airlines except Southwest and JetBlue charge to check a bag on domestic flights.
-- AP

What do you think? Good idea, or another example of nickel and diming air passengers?

The ancient wonder of Machu Picchu and the newly debuted Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper, both were closed for two months, for very different reasons (flooding in one case, electrical issues in the other).

As of last weekend, both tourists hot spots on opposite sides of the world reopened:

Machu Picchu:
Tourists are back at Machu Picchu, which reopened after a two-month closure due to floods that washed out the rail link to the mountaintop ruins.
But officials say the entire route is not expected to reopen until June. Until then, tourists can travel by bus from Cuzco to Piscachuco and from there by train to Machu Picchu Pueblo at the base of the ruins.
Peru's No. 1 tourist site had been shut down since late January, when heavy rains disrupted the rail link from the city of Cuzco and trapped some 4,000 tourists, many of whom had to be rescued with helicopters.
Workers have now finished rehabilitating the last 17 miles of the tracks, though service has not been restored all the way to Cuzco.
The train is the only form of transportation to the fortress, though hardier tourists can also hike there along the steep Inca Trail.
Machu Picchu, nestled atop a verdant mountain in the Andes, averages 1,500 to 2,000 visitors a day. -- AP

Burj Khalifa:

The observation deck of the world's tallest skyscraper reopened Sunday in Dubai, two months after an elevator malfunction that left visitors trapped more than 120 stories above the ground forced it to close.

Dozens of tourists were lining up Sunday for tickets to take an elevator to the 124th floor of the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa, where the tower's observation deck is located.

The deck was shut in February after an elevator packed with visitors got stuck between floors for 45 minutes before rescuers dropped a ladder into the shaft so those inside could crawl out. Two months later, it's still unclear what caused the elevator to fail.

The accident proved a major embarrassment for Dubai, whose rulers hoped the Burj Khalifa, which officially opened in January, would be a major tourist draw and buoy the Gulf city-state as it struggles to revive its image as a cutting-edge Arab metropolis amid nagging questions about its financial health. -- AP

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