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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


“Airfares likely to stay low, but fewer seats available”

Table showing fees for checking individual bags, by commercial airlines. MCT 2009

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SEATTLE — When Seattle paralegalLaura Goldbooked a trip in May to Maui for a friend’s October wedding, she was happy to find an Expedia package that included nonstop flights for herself and a companion.

“”We purposely booked early so we could get a better deal and a good flight,”” she said. Two months later, Expedia sent an e-mail asking her to call immediately.

Delta Air Lines had canceled the flight.

Offered a new itinerary with a stop in Los Angeles on the way over and an overnight layover in Salt Lake City on the return, she applied for a refund, then spent several frantic hours searching for an alterative, finally rebooking on Hawaiian Airlines for $125 more per ticket.

“”I probably worked on it five or six hours, looking at various airlines,”” she said. “”Delta said it was because they were canceling a lot of their flights and … that was it. Too bad.””

With Labor Day signaling the end of the summer travel season, fliers between now and the Christmas holidays will notice changes as the airlines struggle to fill seats and boost revenues.

The good news is that fares, far cheaper than they were last year when fuel prices skyrocketed, are likely to stay low, even for holiday travel.

Thanksgiving fares to domestic destinations are averaging 22 percent less than last year, and fares are 17 percent less for Christmas and New Year’s, according to a forecast by Microsoft’s Bing Travel.

“”There’s no sign that demand is picking up,”” saysJoe Brancatelli, publisher of, a newsletter for business travelers. “”Airlines will have to keep prices down to fill whatever seats they do fly.””

As airlines continue to cut capacity — either by eliminating flights or using smaller planes — the result will be less-convenient routes and fewer nonstop flights.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group, estimates that domestic departures at U.S. airports will drop 22 percent between October and December, compared to last year.

Some cancellations will be temporary. Southwest, for instance, will stop service between Seattle and Kansas City, Mo., in January but resume it in May.

Overall, flights in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will be less affected than in some other cities, mainly because Alaska/Horizon, which accounts for nearly half the airport’s passenger traffic, made its biggest adjustments earlier, adding nonstops in new markets such as Houston, Austin and Atlanta, while reducing flights to other destinations.

Alaska/Horizon will end up with a 5 percent reduction in seat capacity this October compared to last year, saidLiz Phipps, director of network planning.

The main effect will be on routes to Mexico, where the airline slashed capacity 37 percent earlier this year during the swine-flu outbreak.

Alaska will operate many flights just four days a week this fall compared to daily service last year into several Mexican cities from Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.

Plans are still a go for daily nonstops from Seattle to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo starting mid-November, but that could change, depending on bookings or another flu outbreak.

“”We try to make changes far enough out to accommodate passengers who are already booked,”” said Phipps, “”but if demand does not materialize, we’ll make adjustments.””

Policies vary on how far airlines will go to re-accommodate passengers when they cancel or change flights.

Refunds are almost always offered, but that doesn’t help anyone faced with a last-minute change.

Alaska’s policy calls for letting passengers move their departure or arrival by a day with no change fee if a more convenient flight is available. It will also rebook passengers on another carrier’s flight.

Southwest doesn’t offer that option but will allow rebooking on another Southwest flight within a 14-day window without penalty.

Delta’s policy doesn’t include a guarantee of rebooking on another airline, as Gold found out when she asked for a more convenient Northwest flight.

Delta has acquired Northwest, a former partner, and is merging operations, so something evidently went wrong with that decision, said Delta spokeswomanSusan Elliott.

“”We look at ways to have as little impact as possible on their travel plans,”” she said. But the airline’s written policy, outlined in a document called a “”contract of carriage,”” published on its Web site, leaves the option of rebooking on another carrier “”at our sole discretion.””

“”It’s frustrating for the consumer who thinks they paid for a nonstop,”” saysRick Seaney, an air-travel expert and CEO of, a Web site that keeps track of fare changes. “”In general, there’s really not much you can do.””

Capacity cuts usually mean airlines can raise fares, the theory being that the remaining flights should be fuller with fewer seats available. They will be, but maybe not full enough.

“”With the drop in business travel, the bottom line is they have to keep those planes packed with leisure travelers,”” says Seaney. “”And the only way to do that is to discount because business travel isn’t going to bounce back as fast.””

There’s fierce competition among airlines for SeattleSan Francisco ($119 round-trip with taxes for midweek departures in September and October), and other California cities as Alaska, American, United and Virgin America battle for business.

Seaney recommends shopping within a three-month window of when you plan to travel, and not booking too far ahead.

Delta’s Seattle to Madrid round-trip fare of $650 in October, for instance, is a bargain; the $828 it’s quoting for February is not.

“”Nobody should even be looking past January,”” Seaney says. “”Any trip after that, you should be waiting.””

With the exception of Southwest, U.S. airlines now charge most domestic coach passengers to check bags. A few airlines are testing a new round of checked-bag fees for domestic flights. Next could come more new fees on international flights.

Alaska still charges $15 each way to check the first bag and $25 for the second, while American and Virgin America now charge $20 each way for all checked bags on domestic flights. United and Delta, Continental and Northwest charge $15 for the first bag and $25 for the second if fees are paid online, but $20 and $30 if paid at the airport. US Airways recently bumped its fees to $20 and $25 if paid online and $30 and $35 if paid at the airport.

American, Delta and Continental added a $50 one-way charge for checking a second bag to some European destinations.

Check with your airline on changes or see for a fee chart. The charges don’t apply to first- and business-class passengers and elite members of the airlines’ frequent-flier programs.

Some airlines have begun asking passengers to supply their full name as it appears on a passport or other government-issued ID and date of birth and gender when making a reservation, as part of a new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security-vetting program called Secure Flight.

For now, travelers need to do nothing except supply the information when the airline asks. Eventually you’ll need to book reservations using the same name or initials that appear on your official ID. Details at



Traveling soon? Here are some tips for flying defensively.


—Provide your airline with a phone number where you can be reached and sign up for its e-mail alerts. Be proactive. Check your itinerary for changes, especially if you’ve booked far in advance.

Schedule changes are automated to put you on flights that match your original departure and arrival times as closely as possible, but that may not be as important to you as avoiding certain airports, having a shorter layover or flying nonstop at a different time or date.

Call to see what else might be available. Plead your case with a supervisor if necessary.

—Elite members of frequent-flier programs might have more options. The airline might be willing to rebook you on a partner or move your flight ahead or back a day.

—If using Orbitz or Expedia or another third-party booking site, avoid routings that involve travel on non-partner airlines.


Now’s a good time to shop for fares if you’re planning travel in the next three months. Beyond that, you’re probably better off waiting to find the best deals.

“”It never pays to panic, or to give an airline your money too far in advance,”” saysJoe Brancatelli, publisher of, a newsletter for business travelers.

—To get an idea of where fares are headed, do a search on Consult its Farecast “”price predictor”” feature, which recommends buying or waiting based on a statistical analysis of whether fares are expected to rise or fall within the next seven days.

—If fares go down after you purchase, call your airline. Some, including Alaska, JetBlue, United and Southwest, will refund the difference, without a change fee, in the form of a voucher for future travel, as long as you remain on the same flight and travel dates.

Register on and the site will send you an alert if the fare drops.


(c) 2009, The Seattle Times.

Visit The Seattle Times Extra on the World Wide Web at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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