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american airlines new liveryAfter months of rumors and speculation, American Airlines and US Airways officially declared yesterday that the two carriers plan to merge into the country’s largest airline.

It’s the latest of several merger announcements over the past few years in an airline industry that continues to contract. Delta and Northwest joined forces in 2008, and United absorbed Continental in 2010. After American Airlines and US Airways become a single carrier, to be named American, the U.S. will be left with only three major legacy carriers. And don’t forget Southwest Airlines, which is currently in the process of assimilating AirTran’s flights and services after their merger in 2011.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Airline mergers typically lead to less competition, higher fares and plenty of glitches as the carriers try to integrate two different operating systems. (Remember the computer problems that stranded some United fliers last year?) Elite fliers will also want to keep a close eye on their miles to be sure they’re credited correctly when the two programs are integrated.

How do you feel about the American/US Airways merger — excited? Worried? Indifferent? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airport waitThis week, super-storm Sandy grounded planes and snarled travel itineraries across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, with some travelers still marooned even now. In today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear from readers whose travel plans were affected by the storm. Did you have to reschedule a flight, cancel a hotel booking, reroute a train trip or make a travel insurance claim? Was your airline or other travel provider helpful in responding to your dilemma? Tell us in the comments below!

Several staffers from our sister site, Cruise Critic, shared their own Sandy stories.

Managing Editor Colleen McDaniel gives US Airways a gold star for its assistance during the storm. “Six hours before my flight was scheduled to depart from Norfolk to Philadelphia, I got a call notifying me my flight had been canceled,” she told us. “I called US Airways to reschedule, and was able to speak to a real, live person who helped get me booked on a flight a few days later. Sandy came and went in Virginia, causing damage and some power issues, but when it hit New Jersey, knocking out power to millions and causing widespread damage, I realized I was better off staying put. When I explained the situation, the US Airways agent was perfectly agreeable to another switch. I wasn’t charged a dime for the changes either time, and the agents were perfectly pleasant despite, I’m certain, some tough customers.”

Foul Weather Travel Tips

Senior Editor Dan Askin was also booked on US Airways, but his experience was complicated by the fact that he’d booked with frequent flier miles. “When the airline announced to the world it was waiving change fees … we didn’t apply,” he said. “Naturally, there were no ‘awards eligible’ seats available on any flights leaving inside of three days, so there was nothing for us, ostensibly the most loyal fliers, to switch to. Our only option — if we wanted to avoid change fees or recoup the miles — was to wait until the flight was actually canceled. We did so, and were able to rebook on a Wednesday flight. Then that was canceled, so we scrapped the trip altogether.”

United Airlines gets mixed reviews from Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, who was scheduled to fly from Newark to Istanbul for a cruise. The airline canceled her flight a full two days before the storm even arrived. “At least I had some notice and could make an effort to find another route, but United was absolutely unreachable — as a platinum member all I could get was a fast busy signal when I called. I didn’t even have the pleasure of being put on hold,” she said.

Brown generally doesn’t recommend that cruisers book airfare through their cruise line — “they usually cost more and don’t accommodate personal preferences” — but in this case, asking for help from her cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, saved her trip. “A quick e-mail to Regent’s air/sea department at midnight resulted in a rebooking on Swiss Air, same night, though this time from JFK. It got me onboard — and on time.”

The takeaway? Brown told us she’ll consider booking a cruise line’s airfare for complicated itineraries; that way, “you’ve got back-up if you need it.”

4 Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them

How did Sandy affect your travel plans? Share your story in the comments.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

us airways plane tailAs soon as the 24-hour check-in window opened, I pounced on seat 10A, a $37 exit row upgrade with enough legroom to do calisthenics in.

There are 93 Airbus A319-100’s in the US Airways fleet, according to IndependentTraveler.com’s sister company Seat Guru. To make room for the left and right exits in row nine, the window seats (9A and F) were never slotted in. For the occupants of 10A and F, that bit of safety-inspired good fortune meant that our 2.5-hour flight from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, to Philadelphia offered 62 inches of seat pitch (the distance from one point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front or behind). That’s the kind of space you could comfortably tie your shoe in without fear of head injury — the kind of space you could disappear in. You can’t disappear in first class, where the pitch is a meager 38 inches.

How to Get the Best Airplane Seat

An hour in, I gifted my spot to my sleepy travel companion. She vanished, and reappeared looking refreshed when we touched down.

The one drawback is that the tray is in the armrest — so you can’t move the armrest up and expand the width by a centimeter, no small measure in a world defined by tiny bags of pretzels, coffin-sized bathrooms and implied demilitarized zones between strangers.

Certainly no flier is pleased with the so-called deconstruction of airfares, those added fees for a checked bag or a smile from the flight attendant. But this was $37 — waived for certain frequent flier achievers — well spent.

– written by Dan Askin

suitcase cell phone womanMaybe you’re having a disastrous day at the airport, trying unsuccessfully to get rebooked after a canceled flight. Or you’re sitting at home on hold with an airline’s customer service department, listening to hour two of Elevator Music’s Greatest Hits. In growing frustration, you may be tempted to take your complaint to social media — but when you pull up your airline’s Twitter page, you encounter something like this:

“@jetblue doesn’t respond to formal complaints on Twitter. For official customer concerns go to jetblue.com/speakup or call 1-800-jetblue.”

“Have a complaint/compliment to share with us? Go to usairways.com/feedback so we can followup [sic] directly. We aren’t able to provide a proper response on Twitter.”

“Tweeting is short and sweet, but sometimes you need more than 140 characters to get an issue resolved. If you require a specific response: For post-travel issues related to travel [on] a United Airlines operated flight, please contact Customer Care at http://united.com/feedback.”

Why are the airlines on social media if they’re just going to shut down the conversation? Can they really do that?

Turns out that they can’t — and despite what their profiles say, they don’t even try. Even though JetBlue claims not to respond to complaints on Twitter, a quick scan of its Twitter page reveals responses to a delayed traveler (“We hear your frustration. What flight are you on so we can provide the most up to date information?”), a person having problems with the airline’s Web site (“You can either try using a different browser or give our Getaways department a call at 1-800-JETBLUE and they can help!”) and a passenger whose TV didn’t work in flight (“Sorry to hear – per our Customer Bill of Rights, you’re entitled to a $15 credit for the inconvenience”) — all within the past 13 hours.

Make Your Travel Complaint Count

US Airways, meanwhile, tweeted this morning that it would rebook a delayed passenger, and asked other travelers having problems to DM (direct message) their confirmation codes so that the carrier’s Twitter team could look into the problem. United Airlines answered traveler questions and offered the appropriate customer service phone numbers and Web sites to Twitter followers who needed more in-depth assistance.

It’s clear that despite the airlines’ efforts to discourage passengers from speaking out on Twitter, people are doing it anyway — and the airlines are responding, often within minutes. Really, it makes sense; a tweet that goes viral can turn into a public relations nightmare, so it’s in the airlines’ best interest to resolve issues on Twitter as quickly and effectively as possible.

So the next time you’re fed up with a flight, consider the power you have in those simple 140 characters.

How to Use Twitter in Your Travels

Follow IndependentTraveler.com on Twitter!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

overhead bin airplaneOn my last flight, the gate agent announced that anyone in boarding zone five with a roll-aboard carry-on should go ahead and bring it up to the desk to be gate checked, as there wouldn’t be enough overhead bin space for it on the plane. I wasn’t particularly surprised; it seems that every time I fly, the boarding process turns into a chaotic mess of passengers stumbling down the aisle with their hefty carry-ons, searching row after row for a precious sliver of overhead bin space. (And don’t even get me started on the de-boarding process, when all the people who stowed bags 10 rows behind their own have to fight their way against traffic to be reunited with their possessions.)

Fortunately, the airlines — who created this problem in the first place by imposing fees on checked baggage — are responding by making overhead bins larger. According to a report from the Associated Press, four U.S. airlines are planning or have already begun making changes to the overhead bins on select aircraft: American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways. These updates include more spacious bins as well as new bin doors with a more generous outward curve, allowing bags to be stowed wheels first rather than sideways.

Jet manufacturer Boeing is also tweaking the bin designs on its new planes to better accommodate standard roll-aboard bags.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

On the one hand, it’s about time. Having effectively instituted penalties for checking bags, the airlines ought to be prepared to accommodate more carry-ons. On the other hand, if fliers know the bins are getting bigger, will they just bring more stuff? (According to the AP story, the airlines are going to be more vigilant about policing the size of carry-ons — so it may not be an issue.) Plus, the ballooning bins are just more dispiriting evidence of what we already knew: that those pesky baggage fees are definitely here to stay.

Hate gate checking your bag? Here’s how to prepare in case it happens to you: A Bag Inside a Bag.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplanes travel planes sad suitcasesFrom the moment you book your plane ticket (want to select your seat in advance? That’ll be $10, please) to the day you roll up to the check-in counter and shell out $50 for your checked bags, the airlines leave no fee unturned. And this past weekend, most major U.S. airlines found yet another way to line their pockets at the expense of the flying public.

On Friday, Congress failed to pass legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. As of Saturday, FAA-funded construction projects have been put on hold, all non-essential employees have been furloughed and — most importantly for fliers — the agency has lost the ability to collect various taxes that normally go along with the purchase of a plane ticket.

Hurray! Cheaper airfare for everyone, right?

Well, no. Instead of passing the tax savings on to travelers, most major airlines are raising their fares to offset the cost of the taxes — and pocketing the difference. The Associated Press reports that American, United, Continental, Delta, US Airways, Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue have all increased their fares, typically by about 7.5 percent.

According to an earlier AP report, “Passengers who bought tickets before this weekend but travel during the FAA shutdown could be entitled to a refund of the taxes that they paid, said Treasury Department spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom. She said it’s unclear whether the government can keep taxes for travel at a time when it doesn’t have authority to collect the money.”

Editor’s Note: On August 5, the IRS announced that passengers will not be getting refunds for taxes paid during the FAA shutdown after all. You can read the IRS statement here.

There are a few airlines out there that are giving travelers a break, including Virgin America, Frontier, Alaska and Spirit. Yes, that’s the same Spirit we wrote about a couple of weeks ago as one of the ugliest airlines in the industry. But hey, we can give credit where it’s due. It’s nice to see Spirit making the customer-friendly choice for once.

As for the big guys, shame on them. Really, it’s no wonder we hate the airlines.



– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplaneWho’s the ace in the battle of the airlines? Consumer Reports released its U.S. airline rankings yesterday, revealing which golden carrier claimed the coveted number-one spot. The verdict? Southwest snagged the top trophy, with JetBlue a close second, and Alaska, Frontier and AirTran trailing respectively behind.

A poll of nearly 15,000 Consumer Reports readers ranked 10 airlines based on factors including seating comfort, baggage handling, cabin-crew service, ease of check-in, in-flight entertainment and cabin cleanliness. The airlines’ total scores were tallied on a scale of 0 to 100. Southwest secured 87, while JetBlue got a healthy score of 84. The biggest loser, US Airways, came in last with a score of 61.

Four of the survey’s five top scores were achieved by discount airlines — a verdict likely influenced by major carriers’ abundant baggage fees. Southwest and JetBlue permit passengers to check at least one bag for free, whereas major airlines charge for checked baggage on domestic flights. Customer service may also have played a part in pushing the big airlines to the bottom of the rankings. American, Delta, United and US Airways, the carriers with the lowest scores, all registered below average in the check-in ease and cabin-crew service categories.

But really, is anyone surprised? In The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines, Traveler’s Ed compares most airlines to a bad friend: “Missed a connection or late to the flight due to bad weather? Too bad for you! We can’t fly due to bad weather? Too bad for you!”

Here’s another revelation that failed to shock me: In the seating comfort category, basically every airline save JetBlue and Southwest bombed — and even our winning discount duo scored average at best. Southwest offers 32 to 33 inches of legroom in its economy-class seats, which, according to stats on SeatGuru.com, beats economy-class seats on loads of major airline-operated planes by an inch or two (and sometimes even three: American Airlines’ leg-cramping Aerospatiale/Alenia 72 planes offer a paltry 30 inches of pitch).

An inch doesn’t sound like a lot. But when your knees are in your face and you’ve got four hours to go, even meager units of length become vital.

What are your picks for the best and worst airlines?

– written by Caroline Costello

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network. The TripAdvisor Media Network also owns SeatGuru.com.

broken suitcase “Hey, buddy, stuff’s falling out of your bag,” said a customer in line at the Denver Airport Hertz. My suitcase zipper was ripped, and I was leaving a trail of balled socks and rolled T-shirts.

US Airways had ruined my bag. But beyond ranting to strangers on the Internet (there are enough stories of satanic airlines taking pleasure in stuffing passengers into sardine cans, gleefully destroying baggage and watching us boil as we stumble through the customer service labyrinth), what recourse does a flier have when his bag is destroyed?

Like most airlines, US Airways requires that passengers report any damage to checked bags at the airport. With US Airways, this must be done within four hours. (Some carriers allow up to 24 hours, but the complaint still has to be made at the airport.) So I zipped back to the baggage claim.

“I’m sorry, sir, we see this happen all the time,” said the claim rep. She told me that airlines are not liable for damage to wheels, feet, zippers and extending handles. “When the baggage handlers throw the bags, the zipper rips off the fabric.” Do they see a lot of smashed zippers when they gently place the luggage on the belt? She obviously had no answer, but she gave me a number to call and register a complaint.

I was then told to e-mail my story to Central Baggage Resolution, a Phoenix-based office only reachable by e-mail. I imagine CBR as a digital bonfire that’s endlessly destroying correspondences. I learned that once CBR receives my claim, it’ll be 14 – 21 working days before I hear from them.

As I continue to hold my breath, I’ve started researching other ways to protect checked bags in the future. My plan of choice is simply to never check a bag, but here’s some info I found:

Both third-party insurers and credit card companies sometimes offer baggage insurance. American Express, for instance, offers free and for-fee baggage protection policies for card holders. I called Amex to learn about its $9.95 per roundtrip flight “premium” baggage policy, which covers checked bag damages up to $1,000. Here’s how it works, according to the customer rep: “File a claim with the airline at the airport. Get the denial.” Then file a claim with AmEx. The claim is reviewed with a licensed rep — but obviously there’s no guarantee that they’ll rule in your favor. The representative did say, however, that there are technically no exclusions for type of damage, ripped zippers included.

According to Smarter Travel‘s Ed Perkins, third party insurers can vary widely — and again, it’s up to fliers to start with the airline, get the denial (or some coverage if you’re lucky) and then file a second claim with the insurer. As always, it’s essential to read the fine print to see what the coverage cap is and if there are exclusions for certain types of damage.

Quite honestly, it all seems like a massive hassle. I paid $50 for someone to rip my bag, rendering it unusable without turning it into a silver mummy. I just want my $50 back. And maybe US Airways could throw in the $3.69 for the roll of duct tape.

Have the airlines ever lost or ruined your luggage? Share your story!

–written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Smarter Travel.

airplane food airline mealEgg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?

For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.

DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.

According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.

Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).

For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane seatsIt’s nice to snag a seat in the front row of a plane and exit early … but is it worth 20 bucks?

With American Airlines’ recently announced Express Seats service, travelers can now select seats in the front of the plane for quick and easy debarkation. This new program also includes Group 1 boarding, which means passengers who sign up for Express Seats can be among the first coach fliers to board the plane. This is an especially beneficial product for those impatient travelers who bypass the line and slyly sidle up to the gate opening moments before the flight attendant calls their group number (and yes, we see you cutting the queue).

Surprise, surprise: This will cost you. Prices vary based on mileage, but introductory fees start at $19 each way. For example, buying an Express Seat on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago will cost $19, and on a flight from New York to Los Angeles the cost jumps to $39 (the service is available for domestic flights only).

American is one of the last big-name airlines to jump on the pay-for-priority bandwagon. US Airways, Continental, United, AirTran and several others have similar systems, charging coach passengers more for earlier boarding, seats that are near the front of the plane, or window and aisle seats.

Airlines have long been advocates of the class system, forcing proletariat passengers to wait in lines and wedge into shoebox-size seats while the elites fully extend their legs and ponder the in-flight wine list. But we have to wonder: Has this gone too far? In ancient times when checked bags were free and front-row coach seats were first come, first serve, a passenger who purchased a standard-fare ticket was qualified for a comfortable, pleasant flight. These days, a “comfortable flight” costs way more than the airlines’ published fares — and budget-minded travelers who simply wait in line and book ahead are denied the perks once to credited to early birds.

Will the airlines continue to split coach seats into sub-classes, forcing passengers to pay a fee for virtually everything but the smelly row next to the bathroom? Such a scenario isn’t realistic (well, we hope it isn’t), but there are still plenty of free onboard features, from tray tables to reclining seats, that could cost extra in the near future if this trend continues. Tell us what you think!