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Airline Policy Changes: 25 You Need to Know

When computing the real cost of travel, the published price of an airline ticket is just the beginning.

To determine the actual cost of flying, travelers must add to the ticket price not only taxes and security charges but the numerous and arcane fees that can double the price of the advertised fare. Among them: charges for curbside check-in, fees for extra and oversized bags, paper tickets, exit row seats, blankets, phone bookings, [[Fuel Surcharge | fuel surcharges]], and so on.

Then there are the niggling restrictions that add or diminish flexibility and convenience to the basic travel service. Sure, you can buy a ticket that is readily refundable if you cancel your trip, or changeable if you alter your plans, but you’ll pay a steep price for such restriction-free tickets.

And in the realm of [[Frequent Flyer Programs | travel loyalty programs]]—still an important factor in many consumers’ value calculation—there are earning rates, award prices, [[Mileage Expiration | expiration policies]], service fees, and a host of other variables that affect the utility of frequent flyer miles and ultimately bear on the value of an airline ticket.

Gone are the days when such rules and policies were relatively static. Today, they seem as fluid as airfares, up one day, down another, here today, gone tomorrow.

What follows is a sampling of the recent fee and policy changes.

[[Air Canada]], one of the originators of the a-la-carte pricing model, has rescinded a particularly nettlesome add-on charge: the fee for the second checked bag. Air Canada introduced the fee in May, and is the first North American carrier to terminate it. And while it may be moot, with the price of oil falling by more than half since its July peak, the airline also committed to including any fuel surcharges in its published fares.

Those fees to check a second bag? At one point, [[Delta Air Lines |Delta]] charged $50 for the privilege. But, in concert with [% 2766986 | | a number of other changes %], Delta now plans to reduce the fee to $25 for flights departing on or after December 5. That good news is more than offset by a newly imposed $15 fee for the first bag. But that bad news is itself somewhat offset by the reduction of Delta’s $25 phone booking fee to $20.

[% 2767629 | | United %] followed Delta in reducing its second-bag fee to $25. And through January 31, 2009, the airline is offering its customers a 20 percent discount on the $15 charge for the first checked bag, when the fee is paid in advance on United’s website—a nice savings for those who know to take advantage of it.

United, you may recall, began charging for coach meal service on overseas flights in August, but [% 2656868 | | reinstated the free meals %] within weeks in response to complaints from customers.

As if it weren’t enough that travelers had to keep track of which airline charges how much for checking a bag, [% 2760115 | | Continental %] recently changed it baggage specifications, downsizing the maximum size of bags permitted as carry-ons from 51 to 45 linear inches (the sum of the bag’s length, width, and height). That change comes less than a month after Continental implemented a [% 2660616 | | $15 charge %] for checking the first bag.

Traditionally, airline pillows were either a nuisance (to be stowed in the overhead bin, space permitting) or a godsend (for red-eye flights). Before the year is out, [% 2764452 | | US Airways %] will begin charging flyers for the privilege of using them, converting yet another basic necessity into an extra-cost luxury. [% 2642156 | | JetBlue %] began charging $7 for a blanket-and-pillow combo back in August, so there’s some precedent for US Airways’ move. But in general, US Airways has taken the fee-for-all concept the furthest, with more and higher fees than other carriers.

[[Southwest Airlines | Southwest]] has used the other airlines’ fee frenzy against them, mounting ads chiding carriers for nickel-and-diming their customers, and promising not to do the same.

But Southwest itself isn’t above far-reaching rule reversals, as it proved in 2006 when it rescinded its no-blackout date policy for award tickets. And more fundamentally, in concert with its [% 2676403 | | new focus on business travelers %], Southwest has abandoned its longstanding populist ways to allow more profitable customers to board before others.

The net effect of such mishmashes of positive and negative changes is hard to compute, depending as it does on their real world impact on individual travelers. Even when the overall outcome is positive, the sheer volume of such changes makes them time-consuming to decipher, confusing, or both.

In the frequent flyer realm, Delta rolled out its [% 2750698 | | new SkyMiles award scheme %] on October 1, replacing the traditional restricted and unrestricted awards with a three-tier scheme featuring a new intermediate category of award that offers easier access to award seats, but requires more miles than the previous capacity-controlled awards.

Also effective from October, [% 2644851 | | American %] rejiggered its award chart, increasing the number of miles required for a wide range of awards and imposing a cash surcharge of $50 each way for domestic upgrade awards.

[% 2764709 | | United %] has announced a new award scheme as well, with a January 1, 2009, effect date. While the most popular award—a round-trip domestic coach ticket at 25,000 miles—remains untouched, some awards will cost as much as 40 percent more miles. And beginning in July 2009, members of United’s program will be assessed cash surcharges for upgrades, very much like those in American’s program. On a positive note, United will also begin allowing international upgrades from discounted coach fares, which is not currently an option.

United and US Airways both recently revoked their policy of awarding a minimum of 500 frequent flyer miles, even for short-haul flights. Continental announced it would do the same, beginning in 2009, but later modified the modification to allow elite members of its program to continue earning the 500-mile minimum. [% 2759140 | | American %] has since announced that it will follow Continental’s lead. Delta (and Northwest, which now flies as a Delta subsidiary) is the odd man out here—so far they have retained the 500 mile minimum for all customers.

And finally, American quietly abandoned its [% 2760257 | | $5 award ticketing fee %] in October, leaving US Airways and [[Frontier Airlines | Frontier]] as the only U.S. carriers still charging a fee to issue what was once a free ticket.

It’s tempting to wrap up with a paragraph beginning, “When the dust settles…” But there’s no telling when this dust will settle, or how. Until the airlines curtail their flips, flops, flip-flops, and reverse flip-flops, travelers will have to ask not just “What’s the rule today?” but also wonder, “What will the rule be tomorrow, next week, and next month?”

When it comes to air travel, confusion is the new certainty.

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