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Confessions of an airline executive


Our anonymous confessor has been in airline public relations, marketing, and customer relations for a decade now.

Complaints: Executives are concerned about the company's image, and the most effective complaints go right to the top with threats of talking to the media or the Department of Transportation. These complaints are handed off to someone like me, whose job is to make you feel better—in the form of free tickets, if you're lucky.

Refunds and changes: I'll never get those travelers who buy nonrefundable tickets and then give the airline a hard time because they can't have a refund. If you must change plans, you can request that a reservation agent waive a fee, but it's unlikely you'll get anywhere. Agents try as hard as an NFL defense to hold the line. We will, perhaps, waive change fees if there was a death in the family, you're horribly sick or under military orders, or you encountered a flash flood or some other disaster on the way to the airport. But don't be surprised when we ask you to prove your situation.

Lost luggage: Airlines anticipate that about 1 percent of checked bags will be mishandled, damaged, or lost, and they even budget accordingly. The maximum that domestic airlines have to pay for damaged or delayed bags is $3,000 per passenger, as per the Department of Transportation. But airlines hardly ever pay anywhere near that amount because they don't reimburse for cash, cameras, video equipment, computers, jewelry, antiques, or other expensive stuff.

Delays and cancellations: If flights are delayed or canceled, airlines usually promise to reimburse passengers only for immediate needs (such as meals, ground transportation, and lodging). Airlines will never pay claims for losses that are due to missed meetings or lost wages. If you make a big stink, however, we may provide tickets or discounts on future flights, as a gesture of goodwill.

Sale fares: We limit the number of sale seats on each flight, so only a few people get the cheapest fares. We may offer lots of sale fares on less popular "dog flights" (usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) but few or no discounted seats on Fridays and Sundays. There's no law stipulating that a certain percentage of seats be discounted when an airline announces a sale. In 1993, the DOT slapped Continental's wrist and stated that a combination of flights with sale-fare seats ranging from 0 to 7 percent of capacity wasn't reasonable. Our lawyers say we're safe if we discount 10 percent of capacity during a sale. Can an airline get away with 7.5 percent? Probably.

Of course, there's the "float the boat" effect, in which a well-publicized sale brings in customers who wind up buying tickets at much higher prices. Another executive recently boasted to me that he offered a rock-bottom sale for a limited time—and nearly two thirds of the tickets were sold at higher fares.

Where the deals are: Consumers marvel at the ease and convenience of booking through an online travel site like Expedia or Orbitz, but airlines have to pay those sites as much as $10 per flight for the booking. It's no wonder that the lowest fares are usually found on the airline's own Web site.