The new airfare gotcha

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

The big three legacy airlines have foisted a new gotcha on unsuspecting air travel consumers. “The way to arrange a multicity circle trip,” they tell you, “is to use our convenient multicity feature on our booking website.” And if you do, consumer advocates reveal, new rules would result in your paying several times as much as when you book your trip as separate one-way links.

In a posting last week, Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, cited a specific example: a three-stop circle trip from New York to Los Angeles to Albuquerque to Montreal to New York. Book it as a complete circle trip on an airline’s “multicity” website and pay $2,745. Book it as four one-way segments and pay $898. Similarly, blogger Gary Leff reported on a circle Austin-Chicago-Dallas-Austin trip: multicity price $1,058, separate one-ticket price $271. Depending on the trip, individual tickets can reduce the circle-trip fare anywhere from just a little to as much as 85 percent, according to Mitchell.

What’s the deal? Apparently, airlines’ systems compute the total fare as the sum of refundable fares rather than the sum of the lowest available fares. American, Delta and United all appear to be following the same general formula.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, Mitchell raised the obvious question of possible “illegal coordination” among the big three legacy lines. The fact that all three airlines changed fare rules at essentially the same time, to essentially the same rules, would tend to support this conclusion. As Mitchell puts it, “Perhaps most troubling is how the airlines knew that their competitors had made this change given that there was no public announcement.”

In some cases, a simple round-trip through an intermediate connecting point can cost more as a single ticket than as separate one-way tickets. So far, according to the blogosphere, airlines still check a bag through on a two-ticket trip, as long as both flights are on the same line. But an airline could decide to require that travelers on two-ticket trips to claim and re-check baggage — a non-starter for most travelers because of the requirement to do security twice.

Mitchell is asking the Department of Justice to include this development in a more general examination of possible illegal coordination among the giant legacy lines. Certainly, there appears to be lots of evidence to support this conclusion in other ways.

Meanwhile, as consumers, you can generally avoid getting caught:

  • For any multi-stop trip on a giant legacy line, always compare the fare as both a circle multicity trip and a series of one-way trips, and take the lowest total price. You face no downside when you buy your trip this way; you’re not violating any airline rules.
  • Where possible, avoid the giant legacy lines. Alaska doesn’t seem to have adopted this scam: When I checked a circle trip on Alaska — Los Angeles to Anchorage to Seattle to Los Angeles — I found the circle trip a few dollars less expensive, probably because of minor airport fee differences. And Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit and Virgin America price all trips by combining one-way fares.

Given the negative publicity and strong whiffs of coordination, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the big three back off of this anti-consumer policy. But in the meantime, checking single-ticket options is a no-brainer.

As long as we’re on the subject, another gotcha is hitting some air travelers. When a traveler signs up for an airline-sponsored credit card that includes a “free” checked bag, and adds a separate card for a spouse, the “primary card holder” always gets the checked bag freebie. But the spouse gets freebie only when accompanying the primary cardholder: When traveling alone, the spouse pays the standard bag fee. Consumer advocate Donald Pevsner believes the way airlines hype these cards does not adequately disclose this provision: He has petitioned the DOT to require more prominent disclosure. If you agree, you can add your comments to the petition on, docket, DOT-OST-2016-0056.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website.)

Tribune Content Agency — April 5, 2016


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