Cheap Flights

Cheap Flights

Cheap flights should be a goal of every traveler, but we’re learning there are incredible hazards to knocking the price down too low.

My safari with the Cleveland Zoo began by sorting through the many troubles various travelers had with their flights from the U.S. into Africa. Much of what happened to a number of these 20 people has happened to many of our other travelers this season, so I though I should document the travails with some advice as to how to avoid such misery.

The first and likely most frequent problem is missing a connection. This happened to three wonderful ladies on the trip, Adela Kuc, Mary Bartos and Mercedes Lira, who the others on the trip began to call the “Newark-3″. This was a really big trip for all of them and their first time in Africa.

The missed connection resulted in a domino series of mistakes and incorrect remedies that became an outright catastrophe. They missed their connection in Newark by about 5 minutes, but they ended up missing two days on safari and were without their luggage for four days.

The Continental connection was missed because of weather, but the point here was that had they left on the previous earlier flight, they would have made their connection. That would have increased the scheduled connecting time from 1hr:50min to 5hr:50min. Understandably, that six-hour layover seems too long to most people.

But in today’s flying environment, it definitely isn’t if the only alternative is less than 3 hours. I consider this really the fault of Continental by suggesting in the first place that the shorter connecting time is just fine. It isn’t. Flights are miserably delayed, today, and whatever the airline says you need is probably only about half of what you really do.

But there’s more on this point. One of the Newark-3 wouldn’t have minded coming a bit early, except that it was more expensive. But clearly we need to realize in today’s skies that airlines never make their schedules, and the ultimate loss of two days on safari was certainly greater than the increment for the more expensive ticket.

And there’s even more to this sad story. Once the delay occurred, the presumed remedies we all expect didn’t happen.

Previous to today’s hyper-complicated airline alliance and code-share rules, if your connection was missed, it was incumbent upon the airline to do whatever was necessary to get you as quickly to your destination as possible. That meant even booking you onto a competing airline.

No longer. Depending upon the type (read: cost) of your ticket, you might be out of luck. Most CHEAP TICKETS, today, won’t allow booking across different airlines. New rules are in effect which differentiate the responsibility for missing the connection. In other words, the airline will only fault itself for its own mistakes: like mechanical connections or the pilot coming late. But if it’s weather – forget it Charlie, it’s your problem.

Two of the three ladies suffered even more egregious stress and delay, because the electronic ticketing process was faulty. Continental claimed that it couldn’t read the Kenya Airways’ proof-of-ticketing (the ladies were ticketed on Kenya Airways into Nairobi from Amsterdam) : i.e., that from Continental’s point of view, no ticket existed.

I really consider that bogus if technically true, since Continental had flown them from Cleveland to Newark on the same “faulty” ticket. Why the first flight was acceptable but the subsequent flights weren’t is close to high throne hogwash. They call it a rule.

When Continental endorsed over the remaining ticket it could read to British Airways, British Airways refused to recognize it, because Continental’s electronic rewriting process wasn’t recognized in the BA system. This meant that one of the ladies was racing back and forth in the Newark terminal carrying one airline contention to the other and … never getting out of Newark.

Whose fault was this? Continental or British Airways. I’d hang them both.

Ultimately the three ladies made it to Africa, two days late, and more than $2000 more than expected out of pocket for new hotels, new transfers and new local flights. They came in different ways, for no understandable reasons, and their luggage was delayed even longer.

It would take a Ph.D thesis to unweave the whys and wherefores of exactly what happened to them, but I think as a lesson for the future we need to understand that airlines, today, are poorly managed companies losing tons of money with very stressed employees.

Don’t buy their stock, but if you buy their tickets, follow these four rules:

(1) At big metropolitan airports like Newark, Chicago, L.A., Atlanta or New York – and probably a lot of others, too – always give yourself a minimum of 4 hours connecting time. And if your choice is only 6 or 3, take 6.

(2) If you’re on a big trip, like a safari, make sure you add at least one dead day to the beginning of your trip. This takes care of the possibility you’ll be delayed.

(3) Consider insurance more seriously than before. I know that filing for the insurance after a situation like the Newark-3 would become a nightmare in itself, since the documentation of who did what when is complicated. And to successfully invoke insurance, you’ll have to take copious notes of the struggle as it’s happening. But this will cover you for the inevitable loss.

(4) Don’t jeopardize a multi-thousand dollar trip by saving a few hundred dollars on a CHEAP TICKET that connects between too many different airlines. The more airlines in your itinerary, the more complicated it will be to sort out any problem. Code-shares are better than separate airlines, but even code-shares won’t guarantee you as quick a remedy as just sticking with one airline through the whole program. If you have to use more than one airline, you should consider overnighting at the connecting point between the two airlines.

I felt terrible for Mary, Adela and Mercedes; and terrible for Wayne and Margot Gilbert whose Continental departure from Cleveland at 8:25p one night was finally canceled altogether at 3 a.m. And for Angry and Frank Kasper who after dozens of changes on Northwest and KLM found out the day of their departure that they’d been put on separate planes to Europe!

Or for myself, who after my pilot told us cheerfully it was the 90th anniversary of American Airlines then came on the P.A. ten minutes later to apologize for an hour delay due to “paper” problems.

Paper problems?! I thought that ended when I was sent to the principal’s office for sailing paper airplanes at Mrs. Biggin’s desk!

BA BAD BA

BA BAD BA

British Airways used to be one of the best airlines into Africa. It still is, except that you can’t get a seat in advance!

I’m not sure if it was the subway bombing of 7-7 or if it was just a technological coincidence, but that was when British Airways began to deny preassigned seating. The policy was initially to only cover economy, the great bulk of its service, but EWT’s experience is that even business and first-class travelers can’t get seats.

The policy is that 24 hours prior to departure, you can go on-line to obtain your seats. But even that doesn’t seem to work.

Twenty-four hours before my 10:20a departure from London to Nairobi, August 25, would have been any time after 4:20a in the morning my time. I was already driving to O’Hare, but my wife tried for me on-line and received the message, “Sorry, on-line check-in is not available for this flight.”

Or for any other, in our experience.

At O’Hare, my American flight to London automatically checked me into the connecting flight down to Nairobi. And gave me a random seat! American pleaded forgiveness, but they were unable to do anything about it.

Still, couldn’t get online. Called BA in the U.S. and spoke with person after person, but they insisted that because American had checked me in, American had to check me out! And American said, no, it’s BA! So I called London. London said I wasn’t checked in, and I wouldn’t be able to check in until I reached there!

So now I’m in London and go to surrender the seemingly useless boarding pass that American gave me, and the BA rep shouts, “Don’t do that!” as I begin to tear it up with vengeance. “It’s perfectly good!”

“Can I change me seat?” I asked now sheepishly.

She didn’t know. It wasn’t a yes, and it wasn’t a no, and I was in Heathrow. After a few phone calls (yes, the antiquated phone call even as she was standing in front of an IBM blue terminal), I finally got a better seat, mainly because the flight was so poorly booked.

No wonder why.

As Goes KQ

As Goes KQ

Kenya Airways’ labor turmoil is the latest in a series of devastating economic blows to Kenya.

Everything’s back to normal at Jomo Kenyatta International airport after four days of hell. Kenya Airways’ employees struck the airline last Friday, grounding more than half the flights and sending the country’s tourist infrastructure into chaos.

It was the last thing that was needed in this miserable market right now. First there was the political turbulence of December, 2007, which has never fully been rectified. Then, the world economic downturn. Then, the drought. Now, this.

Kenyan hoteliers are incredibly depressed. I spoke with one in Kenya this morning, and she is normally an upbeat, cheerful sort, now mumbling about trying to change jobs. The strike was over by Monday afternoon, but on Monday morning major lodges in Kenya’s Maasai Mara had put out one day two-for-one offers. “Not very many takers,” I was told today.

Kenya seems to be turning into this behemoth of things past. When I reflect back as recently as 2006, the Kenya of today seems to have little that’s similar.

Kenya Airways was one of the great stars of Kenyan development. Truly in a mere ten years, it outpaced its nearest rival, Ethiopian Airlines, which has been around since 1940! Ethiopian Airlines is a great airline, with an extensive network, but never has managed any marketing. Kenya Airways trumped them, here, and by 2005, had a greater revenue stream and profit than Ethiopian.

The Economist Magazine even named Kenya Airways best business airline of Africa in 2004, a title that had been retained by South African Airways for decades. This was in part because of the airlines clever move to turn its business class (which is very nicely priced) into full flat beds, long before other airlines were considering this.

The fleet is new, full of 777s and beautiful, sharp interiors. Have you flown recently on an airline where the flight attendants regularly clean the bathrooms every two hours? Try KQ!

And the airlines astute partnerships with local carriers like PrecisionAir, and its vested part merger with KLM, secured it to both the local and world markets.

This was a short-lived strike. The unions wanted a 130% pay increase, and they settled for 20%. Even that was grand, given that the airline has laid off no staff despite drastic reductions in revenue in the last year.

Good luck KQ. We use to say in America, as goes GM so goes America. Well, as goes KQ, so goes Kenya.

PLANE CRASH

PLANE CRASH

The Wilson airport plane crash on Saturday is no indication tourist flying is dangerous.

The pilot was killed and the three passengers were seriously injured last Saturday when a small plane of the sort which ferries tourists about Kenya crashed into an apartment building near Wilson airport.

The indications from Nairobi are that the crash was pilot error, and there have been a few other such crashes in the last decade all attributed to pilot error. Admittedly, many of the pilots flying East Africa’s small commercial aircraft are kids who can’t get jobs back at home.

There are especially many Americans, Brits, Australians and South Africans. Even before the economic downturn, the demand for new pilots was weak in the developed world. And one way to raise your name in the queue was to get as many commercial flying hours in as possible, anywhere in the world.

It’s not an unreasonable way to get experience, and while I might call them “kids”, I’ve never felt they were anything but completely safe. Many are recently discharged from armed forces.

And statistically, the average of about one small plane crash annually in East Africa is very good, given the number of flights that occur, and compared to other parts of the world. The rate, for example, is twice as good as for Alaska.

In this particular case, it appears that there was a small film crew aboard trying to get closeups from the air of the Kibera slums, which is right across the road from Wilson Airport. The plane flew too low.

Fortunately, no one on the ground was hurt.

Small aircraft are essential to operating a good safari. This particular crash was of a plane owned by the African Inland Missions (AIM), an outfit that rarely charters out to tourist groups. The main tourist group airlines: AirKenya, Safarilink and Boskovitz, have had no plane crash for more than ten years.

Airline Woes

Airline Woes

Changing a name of your airline ticket is not easy.

In my long list of travel absurdities, changing airline tickets ranks right up there at the top. It’s difficult to do even when you have a fully refundable ticket. The volumes of rules confuse even the most senior of airline employees, and above all, it proves my contention that the airline industry requires massive new government regulation.

Like everything else in the ridiculously volatile deregulated airline industry, changing a ticket is a lot easier in good times than it is bad. Because when the airline industry is doing well, it’s flush with cash, its employees are happy, and airline employees are empowered to do most anything they want with any customer. So long as an employee has the password code to a certain level of authority, he can alter or adjust a passenger record virtually in any way. So in good times when everyone feels properly compensated and secure, generosity rules. Forget about the rules. Just talk to a happy person.

But in bad times, beware! When staff has been cut, when the person who finally answers your call is doing double duty with no overtime pay, they aren’t likely to be generous to what they can believe is the very cause of their own misery: you… or the lack of enough of “you.” And even more onerously, the executives trying to squeeze every penny they can out of a hostile market write new rules on top of old rules until the whole mess is so damn convoluted, that you’ll probably be charged just for starting the phone call.

This has nothing to do with fairness or logic. It has to do with survival. If you bought a ticket and the airline has your money, by God don’t disturb them for anything or you’re going to pay!

Recently, we ticketed a family of five traveling from Los Angeles to Nairobi, via London, on British Airways. British Airways is one of the giants in the market, no better or worse than any of the other big guys, and it provides a good example of what would likely happen no matter which big airline company was involved.

The family wanted to fly first class. Hold onto your hats when you hear the prices that are involved, but I felt it important to use this example, because these are the airlines’ most revered customers, to be sure. An unrestricted first class ticket averages about 15-20 times the cost of the least expensive ticket available. Looking at it another way, for every first class ticket the airline sells it has to sell 15-20 regular tickets to get the same revenue.

For this single sale family of five, the combined revenue equaled about a third of the entire backside economy section of the airplane.

But because the airlines have become so immersed in their own complicated rule-making directed mostly at getting every last penny they can out of the vast majority of their penny-pinching back cabin customers (of which I am proudly one), this family got pretty screwed. British Airways got a black eye and probably lost important future business, and the destructive cycle continued.

Admittedly, it was the mother’s fault to begin with. She had changed her name, and thus, her passport. But she gave us a copy of the passport with the old name. It was a photocopy she had on file before the actual passport had had “CANCELED” written across the first page and a triangular portion cut out of the entire book. So one of the five original tickets for the family was written with a name that no longer existed.

Innocent error, right? In the old days it was easily remedied. Just call anyone – anyone, from a phone agent to a sales rep, and with no more than a simple if embarrassed explanation, nobody wanted to have a $17,000 airline ticket written for someone who didn’t exist. Get a live body associated with that coupon! And sorry to put you through that anxiety, ma’am. Don’t worry. What’s your new name? Great! Click. It’s fixed.

That was 30 years ago. When airlines were fun to fly, when employees were well educated and polite, aircraft were safe and spacious, and being up there with the clouds really felt sublime. Twenty years ago when the industry was just deregulated, things were a bit more difficult, but a name change “if properly documented” was no problem provided you weren’t flying Braniff, Ozark or any of the other airlines about to bite the dust because of deregulation. Ten years ago, as security problems were besetting so much of the world, “proper documentation” became laborious.

This laborious documentation – now created by the airlines – costs money to create, so there is now a $20 name change fee. That is one-twentieth of one percent of the cost of the airline ticket. It doesn’t exactly impose financial difficulties on the ticket holder, and it isn’t going to save British Airways from default. So why do it? The reason is sneaky.

It isn’t really a “name change.” The consumer signed laborious documentation acknowledges the absurd new rules: cancel the old ticket for no one who exists, request a refund for everything that was paid less the $20 fee, but immediately buy a new ticket with your real name or risk losing the seat. Hmm. The refund might take a while for that non-existent person. Buying the new ticket must be instantaneous or the airline will give your seat away to the next buyer who comes along before you. So debit your credit card, again, for the same seat. You can’t use the refund, because that’s going to take a while. Doesn’t matter that there will in the interim before the old ticket is refunded, be two bodies technically given the same seat on the same aircraft. And that British Airways will be holding $34,000 for one $17,000 seat. The refund has to be “examined.” No examining needed to buy the duplicate ticket, but British Airways has to personally and not through any contracted bank, credit card service or airline consortium, refund the money. Maybe, it’s a fraud! How long might this take? Oh, can’t say for sure. A week. Ten days. Two months. All depends upon how fast someone gets to it.

All depends upon how happy the employees are; whether we’re in a good time or a bad one. Well, at the moment we’re in a bad one, and British Airways is doing everything in their power to make it much, much worse.