Let the Flier Beware

Airlines: The ups and downs of scheduling, restrictions, fares and unexpected problems can leave even experienced travelers with a lot of emotional baggage. It's important to know all there is to know about Flying Game

September 12, 1999|By Toni Stroud | Toni Stroud,Chicago Tribune

Forget wind shear and bumpy skies. These days, the greatest flight turbulence you're likely to experience will be on the ground. At the airport.

All kinds of things can go wrong with an airplane trip. And in the Flying Game, we'll steer you through the worst. But you should know this up front: when you purchase a ticket, you are paying the airline to carry you and your bags "with reasonable dispatch." You are not buying palm-fringed vistas.

That phrase, "with reasonable dispatch," or its equivalent, appears in most airlines' Conditions of Carriage -- the contract you are agreeing to abide by when you give money to an airline to transport you from one place to another.

These contracts can cover everything from passenger dress codes to ticket refunds, and they are written in language only a lawyer could love. The contracts will tell you that the airline can change air fares and schedules without notice, substitute one airplane for another and omit stopping places shown on your ticket, should the need arise.

They'll tell you it's your responsibility to obtain, present and keep up with travel documents and get to the airport early enough to wade through the departure process. They'll tell you "times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract."

Some airlines have made it easier to find out where their board members went to school than what happens if your flight gets canceled.

That could be changing, though.

Under threat of passenger-rights legislation, the airlines in June promised Congress that, within six months, they would implement "Customers First," a program of voluntary customer-service improvements.

"The airlines" are the members of the Air Transport Association, the trade association for 23 U.S. and five foreign carriers, which fly more than 95 percent of all airborne passengers and cargo in the United States.

On Friday, each member airline is expected to unveil its own "Customers First" program, to be effective by Dec. 17. The airlines plan to:

* Offer the lowest fare for the date, flight and class of service "for which the customer is eligible" to those who call a phone reservation system. Allow phone reservations for a specific time and destination to be held without payment for 24 hours without risking a price hike; or, at the airline's choice, permit passengers to cancel within 24 hours without penalty.

* Disclose rules on frequent-flier mileage redemption and produce an annual report on the subject.

Some promises are worded in such a way that they are only as good as the passenger's savvy: The airlines will "make available" certain information, if a passenger asks for it. However, travelers should be able to find these policies on each airline's Web site.

In the meantime, fasten your seat belts and place your seat backs and tray tables into their full, upright and locked positions. Anything can happen in the Flying Game.

Airlines: The ups and downs of scheduling, restrictions, fares and unexpected problems can leave even experienced travelers with a lot of emotional baggage. It's important to know all there is to know about The Flying Game.

A call for help

It's important to direct your compliments, complaints and claims to the right people. Here are the customer service phone numbers for the top 10 airlines.

Alaska Airlines:

206-431-7286

America West:

800-363-2542

American:

817-967-2000

Continental:

800-932-2732

Delta:

404-715-1450

Northwest:

612-726-2046

Southwest:

214-792-4223

TWA:

314-589-3600

United:

847-700-6796

US Airways:

336-661-0061

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