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High fares, overbooked flights are holiday's unfestive side

Email|Print| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / November 20, 2007

If you're flying this week, buckle up. It could be one of your bumpiest trips ever - and that's before you even set foot on the plane.

An estimated 27 million passengers are expected to fly US airlines during a 12-day period that includes Thanksgiving week - the busiest travel period of the year. That's 4 percent higher than the number of air travelers during the same period last year, according to the Air Transport Association. And if recent months are any indication, the start to this year's holiday travel season, which runs roughly through New Year's, could be one of the most frustrating for flyers: Fares are up. Planes are fuller. And more and more passengers are being bumped.

That's why some would-be travelers like Erin Hartel of Cambridge are staying put. The 27-year-old teacher searched six weeks ago for plane tickets to spend Thanksgiving with her in-laws in Chicago. But instead of flying home, she and her husband will be carving a turkey with friends who live a few minutes away.

Airfare is "super high," said Hartel, whose luggage was lost during flights twice in the past year. "There's no reliability. Even if you spend $500 to get home, there's a high likelihood that you'll be delayed or you won't even make it because the flight gets canceled. There's a high likelihood that your luggage will be lost."

Passengers who think things are getting worse are partially right.

Airlines this month raised holiday fares an average of 10 percent over last year because of soaring fuel prices. They also bumped more passengers in July, August and September - almost 10 out of every 100,000, compared to 7 out of 100,000 a year ago, according to the most recent statistics from the US Department of Transportation. And flights taking off this year have been 80 percent full on average - their highest passenger loads in 12 years. This week, planes will be 90 percent full on average, and some won't have a single vacant seat for bumped travelers who need to be rebooked.

But airlines also have been smoothing over the travel experience in big ways, according to DOT data. In September, carriers landed 81.7 percent of their flights on time - an improvement from 71.7 percent in August and 76.2 percent in the previous September - and canceled 1.1 percent flights, a better record than the 1.9 percent scratched flights in August and 1.7 percent in September 2006. And they did a better job on luggage, with the mishandled baggage rate dropping to 5.45 reports per 1,000 passengers in September, down from the 7.55 in August and the 8.26 the prior September.

Still, with flights so full, there's little wiggle room this week to accommodate a wrinkle at any major US airport - be it a delay for bad weather, a raft of flight cancellations, or a computer glitch. That leaves travelers wondering which side of the statistics they'll end up on.

"Getting there is no longer half the fun. Getting there is usually three-quarters of the pain because there is such stress, there is such uncertainty," said Henry Harteveldt, principal travel analyst for Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge consulting firm. "There is no flexibility left in the system."

That's what Lidia Romero is thinking. The 31-year-old Brandeis University master's student is going to catch a 7 p.m. flight tomorrow from Logan International Airport to Los Angeles.

"I'm actually dreading it," said Romero. "Every year it seems like it gets worse."

This year, airports, airlines, and the government are taking new steps to alleviate such passenger frustration.

Some airlines are pitching in to deal with "the plight of the passenger," as American Airlines spokesman Ned Raynolds calls it. American has reserved a few hundred seats throughout the system, from last Thursday to the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, so it can accommodate passengers who miss their connecting flights because weather delayed their first leg.

And at Logan, where American is the largest carrier, with 16.6 percent of the passengers, the airline is having part-time employees work full-time shifts and funneling administrative sales people into the airport this week to help deal directly with passengers. American also established a customer service desk beyond security checkpoints in Terminal B so passengers seeking assistance won't have to return to the front of the terminal and pass through security again to get back to their gates.

"We are now trying to give customers what everybody really wants, and that's to talk to a real person," Raynolds said.

And Northwest Airlines' Task Force on Holiday Travel Reliability developed a 20-point plan to deal with disrupted flights. It includes telling customers by phone or email that their flight will be delayed or canceled and waiving fees associated with rebooking customers stranded by weather-prompted delays or mechanical problems.

But other airlines have no special plans in place. "We're not doing anything above and beyond what we normally do," said Midwest Airlines spokesman Michael Brophy. "If weather plays into the whole situation, all the airlines have to deal with that and make contingency plans. But you cross the bridge when you come to it."

The government is being more proactive. For instance, the Transportation Security Administration is asking employees to volunteer for overtime shifts at Logan as needed to keep security lines moving.

For his part, President Bush last week outlined an effort to temporarily ease flight delays by opening military air space on the East Coast to civilian carriers from Wednesday evening through Sunday. At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a moratorium on nonessential maintenance, construction and renovation projects at FAA facilities around Thanksgiving and Christmas so its staff can give full attention to handling flights.

Such efforts may help ease the strain on passengers, many of who would avoid holiday travel hassles at all costs - short of skipping the flight.

"When I booked my ticket, I tried to go much earlier than the holiday," said Winson Wu, a 60-year-old engineer in Beverly who flew from Logan to Mineta San Jose International Airport last Friday.

For Katie Slicher, a 20-year-old Berklee College of Music student, flying this week will boil down to her state of mind. She plans to head to Baltimore Washington International Airport from Logan on a 5:30 p.m. Airtran flight tomorrow - the third-busiest air travel day of the year, right behind the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving.

"It's obviously going to be a lot of fun," Slicher quipped. "At this point, I've realized I'm not going to be the one deciding; I just have to go with it."

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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