The Travel Adviser: Use common sense to save money

I would simply exhort potential fliers to think carefully before purchasing tickets on American Airlines this fall.

American Airline 370 (photo credit: Gene Blevins/Reuters)
American Airline 370
(photo credit: Gene Blevins/Reuters)
Have you ever walked into a Walmart only to be told over the loudspeakers, “Don’t trust the salespeople”? Been to a movie lately, where one of the ads preceding the movie beseeched you not to rely on the ushers? Then how would you react if American Airlines management issued a statement blasting its pilots for causing hundreds of flight cancellations and delays? The long-running dispute between AA and its pilots, who saw their labor arrangement cancelled by a US bankruptcy court last month, has reached a nasty state, with both sides hurling accusations. AA, which has already sent out layoff warning notices to 11,000 employees, said in the statement that flight disruptions were primarily due to the significant increase in maintenance write-ups by its own pilots. Furthermore, it said, AA pilots have been calling in sick 20 more than last year, leading to even more cancellations.
American Airlines is already in Chapter 11, a precursor to full bankruptcy. US Airways and AA have signed a non-disclosure agreement, in the fervent hope that AA can be salvaged. The head of AA’s pilot union has taken to asking his own pilots not to call in sick, not to fill out frivolous maintenance reports, and not to make time-consuming detours.
The impact on the individual flier is a heavy one.
Keep in mind that American Airlines doesn’t fly to every country in the world, but because it wants your dollars and euros, it appoints general sales agents in countries where it elects not to land its planes.
In Israel, while it has the right to fly into Tel Aviv, AA has elected not to exercise this option and instead appointed Tal Aviation.
Since its founding in 1987, Tal has emerged as a leading and dynamic airline representative able to deliver cost-effective solutions for developing new markets. With an experienced and dedicated team, it offers airlines creative and adaptable strategies to compete effectively in today’s highly competitive airline industry and travel marketplace.
Or so it claims on its site. The reality is somewhat different.
SHLOMI IS 23 years old, did his three years of army service and, like so many IDF soldiers, worked for a bit upon being discharged, saving up money for a six-month jaunt to North and South America. Working with his travel consultant, he planned a trip using American Airlines as his trans-Altantic airline, and purchased a reasonable ticket, scheduling his return from Los Angeles to London on AA, with El Al bringing him back to Tel Aviv.
Five months into his trip, lazing on the beaches of Cancun, Mexico and sipping a well-deserved Piña Colada, he got a text message that a close relative had died in Tel Aviv. Throwing caution to the wind, he decided to return to Tel Aviv straight from Cancun instead of from LA. Scouring the Internet, he saw that American Airlines also flew from Cancun, and contacted his travel consultant to make the change and to pay the difference in fare.
His consultant confirmed the obvious: Instead of flying AA from LA to London, he would fly from Cancun to London on AA via JFK. In fact, she guesstimated, with the change fee and extra taxes, it would easily be well under $300. Shlomi approved the changes with the proviso that the penalty would not exceed that amount, and Tali, his travel consultant, contacted Tal Aviation to get his ticket reissued.
In your dreams, she was told, we can’t authorize the change. Since Tal’s system was incapable of giving an exact fee, it refused to take responsibility and passed the buck to AA in London. Going up to a supervisor at Tal Aviation elicited the same response: We are not willing to risk a debit memo from AA on your behalf. Your client, your problem, was the clear message.
Here’s the airline’s phone number, Tal said, give them a ring.
Tali had no option but to contact the airline by phone. Waiting 20 minutes simply to speak to a human being, she received one quote, and then another one 20 minutes later. She was aware that there would be both a penalty in the air fare and a difference in the taxes.
The AA representative would only quote the tax difference in a single sum, refusing to provide her with a breakdown of the different taxes being charged. No matter, a firm amount was quoted: $248 in all. As the call was being concluded, the AA representative did mention she saw some type of schedule change on the leg from Cancun to JFK, no doubt prompted by their pilots’ actions. When Tali asked what that schedule change might be, AA’s reply was it couldn’t divulge that information. The representative did assure her that the exact quotation of the fees would be sent to Tal Aviation so the ticket could be properly reissued.
It only took three more hours for Tal Aviation to call back with the details, and it reissued the ticket. Shlomi received the new e-ticket, never realizing the process that making his simple change had entailed.
He was cautioned, though, that as he had already paid the reissue fee, he should vigorously fight any attempt to make him pay one peso more. A wise warning it was, for on checking in at Cancun’s AA counter, he was told he had to pay a change fee. When he showed them the emails from Tali, they rechecked their system and apologized for the miscommunication.
He made his flights, retrieved his bags and, after thanking her profusely, mentioned that he was planning on traveling again the next month and that a cursory search showed him AA had some of the cheaper fares to the US.
Should he fly with them? When an esteemed Wall Street Journal columnist advises his readers to book away from American Airlines this fall, those comments resonate loudly in my mind. Columnist Scott McCartney made that suggestion, saying that the airline’s operation “is in shambles” and that the carrier has become too unreliable.
I would simply exhort potential fliers to think carefully before purchasing tickets on American Airlines this fall. It’s hard to resist their international fares, which are some of the cheapest around. Inside the US, the low-cost carriers and the legacy carriers offer clear-cut alternatives. When the on-time statistics show that American is barely maintaining a 50% record while the airline industry norm is over 90%, I’d pay attention.
When AA’s own management is threatening legal action against the pilots’ union, I’d listen.
Use your common sense before deciding to save your dollars and cents.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.