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Can airlines make travel much more miserable and costly?

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published July 8, 2017

There's a record number of travelers in the air this month, and Alaska is enjoying a robust summer. Planes are full — and most travelers are taking off and landing without incident.

Still, governments and airlines feel compelled to turn up the heat on travelers. Little changes can have big ramifications, which often play out at the security checkpoint or the boarding gate.

Some changes are made under the broad category of "security," such as the TSA's new "enhanced" pat-downs. Some, like travel writer Christopher Elliott, characterize the procedure as "legal groping."

Although all travelers are subject to a stop-and-frisk session at the TSA station, you're less likely to be asked to assume the position if you have purchased the Global Entry pass or a TSA Pre-Check pass.

Another sweeping security directive banned travelers from airports in select Muslim countries from carrying laptops on U.S.-bound flights in the cabin. Instead, airlines had to box up all the laptop and tablet computers and stow them in the baggage compartment. Or, passengers were instructed to stow them in checked bags. This move, coupled with the controversial "Muslim ban" on refugees and visa seekers from select Muslim countries, put a damper on travel to the United States. Emirates, one of the biggest airlines in the Middle East, cut many of its flights to the U.S. as a result.

All the major airlines caught up in the laptop ban have reconciled with U.S. security officials in order to rescind the controversial move. Flights on Saudi Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc and Royal Jordanian Air are still subject to the laptop ban.

All the major airlines caught up in the laptop ban have reconciled with U.S. security officials in order to rescind the controversial move. Flights on Saudi Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc and Royal Jordanian Air are still subject to the laptop ban.

Laptops on fire

The U.S. security directive, while presumably well-meaning, created other problems for fire safety, since there have been several issues of battery fires with laptops. With all of the laptops in one compartment in the cargo hold, there would be no way to put out a spontaneous combustion in the air.

The laptop ban and the Muslim ban led to increased stress for travelers as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flirted with the idea of banning in-cabin laptops on all international flights. First there's the terror threat of bombs in laptops. Then there's the fire danger of a bunch of lithium batteries squished together in the cargo hold. Add to these the threat that baggage handlers or security personnel would simply steal your gear before or after your flight. Lovely.

If it's not the TSA or DHS regulations making travelers more anxious, it's the airlines themselves.

Recently, United Airlines announced that travelers choosing its “Basic Economy” fares would not be able to use the online check-in feature. Instead, travelers would have to stand in line at the airport to prove they weren’t trying to sneak on a full-sized carry-on bag. From Anchorage, United offers nonstop flights to Newark (Saturday-only), Houston, Denver, Chicago and San Francisco. From Fairbanks, United flies nonstop to Chicago.

Here's the thing: When you purchase United's cheapest fare, you can only carry aboard a "small personal item" like a backpack or laptop bag. Further, you cannot request an advance seat assignment. That means you'll probably end up in a middle seat.  It's all part of the new cruelty of Basic Economy.

If, when you purchase a Basic Economy ticket, you elect to check a bag for $25, then you will be "permitted" to complete the online check-in. Here's how a United Airlines spokesperson explained it: "Customers with Basic Economy tickets will be allowed to complete their check-in online only if they qualify for a full-sized carry-on bag or acknowledge that they are checking a bag and pay the checked bag service charge. If they do not qualify for a carry-on bag or do not acknowledge that they are checking a bag, they will not be able to complete the check-in process online. Instead, they will need to speak with a United representative in the airport lobby to complete check-in, so the representative can verify that the traveler does not have a full-sized carry-on bag."

Of course, if you're going to spend $25 to check a bag, you might consider "upgrading" to economy (no, that's not a joke). By paying the extra money, you can get an assigned seat and you can take a full-sized roll-aboard bag with you in the cabin. You'll still have to pay $25  if you want to check an additional bag (if you have liquids, for example).

Alaska Airlines an exception

Alaska Airlines is one airline that is not punishing travelers with the "basic economy" scheme. All seats are pre-assigned on all flights at no additional charge. Alaska residents qualify for the airline's "Club 49" program, allowing for two free checked bags on flights into and out of Alaska. On intra-state flights, three bags are permitted free of charge.

Delta also offers a Basic Economy class, and allows travelers to take a full-sized carry-on into the cabin. But there are no advance seat assignments. And you have to pay to check your bags. Last year, Delta offered Alaskans a bag-fee waiver. But this year, the airline is offering a couple of 20 percent discount vouchers instead. To get them, you have to sign up in advance with a SkyMiles number.

JetBlue also offers pre-assigned seats for all travelers. Further, the carrier consistently has the cheapest fares for travel between Anchorage and both Seattle and Portland. Between Anchorage and Seattle, the lowest fare is $94 one-way. You'll pay extra to check a bag, but you'll get an extra inch or two or legroom on your flight. Hey — don't laugh. Even an extra inch can make a big difference for a tall traveler (I'm 6-foot-5). Oh, and you're free to bring a full-size carry on bag aboard, along with your personal items.

American Airlines, with summertime nonstops from Anchorage to Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, doesn't have a "basic economy" class like Delta and United. But the airline works hard to sell you a pre-assigned seat during the booking process. When I checked the Anchorage-Dallas flight, only middle seats were available unless I wanted to pay between $30 and $33 for a window or aisle seat. For extra legroom, the cost was $57 each way. American is a mileage partner of Alaska Air, but just barely. On the cheapest "O"-class ticket, you'll only earn 25 percent of the actual miles flown.

Each airline has its own set of work-arounds for its elite-level frequent flyers or for those who have a co-branded credit card.

The take-away message for travelers: you would be surprised what governments and airlines can do to mess up your travel plans or charge for what used to be included in your ticket price. I'd say it's better to be surprised well in advance so you can pay the extra money or change airlines.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors. Contact him by email. Or follow him on Twitter and online.

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