Air travelers are in for a jolt

The Baltimore Sun

Air travelers who booked tickets in advance for this fall may want to check again before they check in.

As airlines cut back, some who followed the travel industry's advice to book their trips ahead - from honeymooners to family vacationers - are finding themselves with seats on flights that no longer exist.

Carriers say they are doing the best they can to notify customers of disruptions and accommodate changes. But affected travelers say the options presented by the airlines can be inconvenient, requiring them to use more vacation days, pay for longer - or additional - hotel stays or shave time off the start or end of their trips.

Even ostensibly tiny changes, such as later-than-planned departure times, could result in missed connections, tacking hours onto trips and adding costs. And good luck getting your airline to pay for those expenses.

"If you have an itinerary beyond Labor Day, go online and make sure that flight is still there," even if you haven't been contacted by your carrier, says Terry Trippler, who watches air travel closely as the owner of travel Web site

Since schedule changes are largely set to take effect this fall, the changes are most likely to affect people who have planned ahead. This year, domestic travelers bought tickets for summer travel an average of eight weeks before their departure date, according to statistics provided by travel Web site Travelocity. But some travelers, such as those planning a wedding or honeymoon, plan much farther in advance.

Milton Yang, 27, a software engineer in Reston, Va., saw plans for his October honeymoon in South America thrown into disarray when Delta Air Lines moved his scheduled flight from Atlanta to Quito, Ecuador, one day later. The new flight would not arrive in time for the couple to board the cruise they have booked to the Galapagos Islands. Delta offered to rebook the couple on a flight leaving Oct. 20, but the pair prefer a later departure so they can spend time with family members traveling to attend their wedding in Phoenix on Oct. 18. "I just want to get on my honeymoon," Yang says. "That's all it is."

After he was unable to find a solution by talking with customer-service representatives on the phone, Yang sent a complaint letter to Delta. He hopes it prompts the airline to offer a more convenient flight. "Right now, all of our eggs are in the one basket of them helping us out," he says.

Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton says the airline makes every effort to contact customers whose flights have been canceled and accommodate them on other flights.

For his part, Salt Lake City resident Matthew Hanson hopes he can get Delta to reconsider the change it made to his November return trip home from Tampa, Fla. The 36-year-old software engineer had originally booked his family on nonstop flights to visit his parents in Tampa. But now, the flight from Tampa connects through Cincinnati, where he and his wife will have to haul their two children, ages 8 months and 3 1/2 , onto a connecting flight. Hanson says he realizes the changes are not the end of the world, but he really prefers to fly direct with the kids. "Things tend to run a bit more smooth," he says.

The Cincinnati connection also pushes back their arrival time in Salt Lake City a couple of hours to after 10 p.m., making it a late night for the children. Hanson says he discovered the new schedule only after checking his itinerary online. "The lack of the nonstop definitely is the killer," Hanson says. "Especially when you originally bought the nonstop."

Airlines will not say how many passengers are affected by the cascade of cutbacks announced in recent weeks. Many of those reductions in flights will not take effect until the fourth quarter, after the peak summer travel season.

Still, even when fliers are notified months ahead of time, the changes can quickly derail travel plans and add to travelers' expenses. For example, when Delta offered Yang a flight landing in Ecuador four days before his cruise, he realized that meant four more nights in a hotel. Yang says he asked the airline to pay the extra hotel expenses. Delta refused and offered no other compensation.

Financially strapped airlines have become less willing to spring for such costs, says Joanne Gardner, owner of the Travel Specialist, a Chicago-area travel agency. With surging crude-oil prices pushing jet-fuel costs higher, airlines say they have little choice but to cut routes and schedules. Some carriers now charge passengers a fee for the first checked bag, and others have eliminated free in-flight beverages and snacks.

Gardner says she has seen an increase in major disruptions of her clients' bookings because of schedule cutbacks. "We're seeing more of these major ones than we've ever seen before," she said.

The capacity cutbacks the airlines are putting into place are designed to take flight options out of the system. Delta is cutting 13 percent of its domestic capacity in the second half of this year, and Northwest Airlines intends to cut its mainline capacity - core operations that exclude regional flights - by up to 9.5 percent in the fourth quarter. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, US Airways Group and Continental Airlines Inc. will all cut mainline capacity by as much as 14 percent, 8 percent and 11 percent respectively in the fourth quarter.

What you can do

* Check your itinerary online or call the airline. Airlines say they're doing the best they can to notify customers of disruptions and changes.

* Consult your contract of carriage to see what the airline will do in case of schedule changes. But don't expect it to give you much leverage with the airline.

* Talk to a customer-service representative to see if alternatives are available.

* If no solution can be found, cancel and request a refund.

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