Airline fees are worth more than Facebook

Airlines, Facebook and money

Outside the travel world, everyone’s marveling at the prospect of a Facebook IPO, which could be valued at as much as $100 billion. So, what are we missing while we fawn over Mark Zuckerberg’s creation? How about the slow, stodgy, ugly airline industry. Known for a painful user experience and a steady decline of free features, the likes of Delta and American Airlines are outdoing the hottest online property in the world simply by annoying their customers.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation‘s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, baggage and reservation change fees brought the U.S. airline industry a whopping $5.7 billion last year. Delta picked up close to a billion dollars on baggage fees alone, which doesn’t include what they yanked from the wallets of soldiers returning home from combat. The largest airline in the country also brought in approximately $700 million from reservation change fees.

American Airlines, the fourth largest airline in the United States, came in second in both categories, with $580.7 million in baggage fees and $471.4 million in reservation change fees.The particular beauty of these fees is that they are basically found money. Some passengers need to check bags, and the airlines have to invest in the overhead required to meet this demand. It’s an expense that can’t be avoided. With this fee, they monetized what they’d have to pay anyway. The same is the case for reservation change fees.

The top five earners of baggage fees in 2010 are:

1. Delta: $952.3 million

2. American: $580.7 million

3. US Airways: $513.6 million

4. Continental: $341.6 million

5. United: $313.2 million

Unsurprisingly, the top five earners of reservation change fees don’t look much different:

1. Delta: $698.6 million

2. American: $471.4 million

3. United: $321.5 million

4. US Airways: $253.1 million

5. Continental: $237.4 million

No doubt, activist groups will be up in arms shortly. And airline employees will lament the fact that their executives are so richly compensated while they have endured round after round of pay cuts and layoffs for years upon years.

Frankly, I offer my congratulations to the airline industry. Yes, they are soaking us. Passengers are a captive audience, particularly on routes with limited coverage, and we sometimes have no choice but to pay. The airlines are using this to generate profitable growth for their shareholders, which is their primary responsibility.

So, what about Facebook? The company is estimated to pull in revenues of somewhere above $4 billion this year, most of it from advertising. It is pretty interesting that the popular social network is annoying its customers as a way to generate revenue, just like the airlines!

Who knew that pissing off your target market was an awesome business model?

[photo by Tobin Black via Flickr]

2011 Airline Quality Ratings – AirTran at number one

airline qualityThe 2011 Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) were just released, and AirTran topped the list at number one. The Atlanta based air line got top marks in the study that accounts for on time arrivals, mishandled baggage, complaints, and other metrics. The study only includes airlines in the United States and provides interesting statistics about the overall quality of domestic air travel.

The main form of complaint involved flight problems, followed by baggage. While overall complaints went up about 30% from 2009 to 2010, overall quality rating also went up marginally. This could be due to the communication channel widening to include new forms of customer feedback. AirTran handled baggage the best with only 1.63 bags mishandled per 1000 passengers. American Eagle was at the other end of the spectrum with 7.15 bags mishandled per 1000 passengers. Of all the airlines listed, Hawaiian Airlines topped the list in on time arrival. Over 92% of their flights landed on time. The full report can be viewed here.

AQR Rankings – Domestic Airlines
16. American Eagle
15. Atlantic Southeast
14. Comair
13. Mesa Air
12. United
11. American Airlines
10. Skywest9. Frontier
8. Continental
7. Delta
6. U.S. Airways
5. Southwest
4. Alaska
3. Jet Blue
2. Hawaiian
1. AirTran

flickr image via Bob B. Brown

Vegetarian passenger tosses meat at flight attendant

vegetarian passenger

One of the simple truths about air travel is that the food is usually somewhere between sub-par and awful. Sure, there are exceptions, but these are unlikely oases in a desert of damp sodium-rich indelicacies. Unless you are posted up in first class on Singapore Air eating pan-seared Chilean bass in bouillabaisse broth with capsicum confit and zucchini pasta or one of their many other haute options, you will likely be eating a mass-produced goo concocted by scientists rather than chefs.

It seems a brief food revolt began and subsequently ended on a Continental Airlines flight from the Dominican Republic yesterday. According to MSNBC, the flight was bound for Newark, and a vegetarian passenger was served a meat dish that offended her greatly. Instead of politely returning the meal, disgust consumed her. She tossed the meaty tray at a flight attendant in a display of disorderly resentment. Upon landing, the port authority greeted the plane, but the flight attendant declined to press charges.

flickr image via mr wabu

Knocked up abroad: pregnant travel in the first trimester

pregnant travelFor more on pregnant travel, see parts 1 and 2 of Knocked up abroad: pregnancy in a foreign country here and here.

There’s no question that having a baby changes you: your body, your lifestyle, even your shoe size. One thing I hoped not to change altogether was traveling, as long as it was reasonably safe and comfortable for me and the baby. From the beginning of my pregnancy in Istanbul, my doctor has okayed travel, as long as I get up to stretch frequently on flights and try not to overdo it. Most doctors (and mothers) agree that the second trimester is the most comfortable time for pregnant travel but the first trimester can be a good time as well (while you can still squeeze into pre-maternity clothes and walk without waddling) with a little extra precaution and a little more babying (of the mother, of course).


The first trimester of pregnancy is a tricky time for many women: the risk of miscarriage is highest up to 10 weeks, morning sickness is common, and hormones are running wild. It’s too early to tell anyone outside family or close friends and without a visible belly, it’s impossible for strangers to tell as well. At later points in your pregnancy, a baby bump acts as the international symbol for pregnancy and can make it much easier to express your condition when traveling abroad. If you travel in the early months before showing, you may want to learn the local language words for “I’m pregnant” to avoid a Bridget Jones-esque “mit kinder” scene if you need extra help while traveling.


Over this past December, my husband and I were looking for a good trip to take over the holidays, when I was around 10 weeks pregnant. Our location in Istanbul changes the list of short-haul destinations considerably from what we would have considered from New York, and we debated between a warm-weather beach destination (husband) or a snowy and “Christmassy” European city (me). We ruled out Egypt (not warm enough and not Christmassy), New Zealand (even less convenient to get to than from New York), and Sri Lanka (not enough time to plan properly and some risks of disease I couldn’t be vaccinated against). In the end, we chose…Russia.
Going to Russia in winter while pregnant may seem crazy to some, but for me it made sense: Moscow and St. Petersburg are a few hours from Istanbul by direct flight, my husband speaks fluent Russian in case of any problems, and there was no risk of malaria or eating any food that had spoiled in the sun. While it was cold and snowing during our trip and I couldn’t take advantage of some of Russia’s cold-weather remedies like vodka and saunas, a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a perfect mix of exotic and comfortable.

Nearly every cafe had a variety of non-alcoholic and caffeine-free beverages for me to choose from, I even had non-alcoholic sangria, mojitos, and mulled wine in addition to fresh juices and herbal teas. Both cities are beautiful to explore in the snow, with plenty of museums and cafes to warm up in, and the New Year holiday displays made it festive.

If you are planning a trip to a foreign country while pregnant, it makes sense to keep in mind the following guidelines. Always discuss plans with your doctor before booking and err on the side of caution when choosing a destination.

Check airline restrictions – Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly internationally up to 28 weeks, after which you must provide a doctor’s note issued within a week or so of departure. 35 weeks (earlier for women carrying multiples) is the cutoff for nearly all airlines to prevent women from giving birth on board. Most US domestic carriers will allow pregnant women to fly up to the final month; hilariously, Continental will not let women board if “physical signs of labor are present” though they don’t specify what.

Consider travel insurance – If your medical insurance doesn’t cover you overseas, you may want to look into supplementary medical travel insurance, but be sure it covers pregnancy as many policies do not. Additionally, if you are traveling to a country where English is not spoken, you may want to research the name of a clinic or doctor in case of emergency as well.

Be prepared for jet lag – Before pregnancy, I had little issues with jet lag, trying to get on local time as soon as possible. I discovered when flying back from the US to Turkey that it hits you much harder as a pregnant traveler, especially as you can’t use sleeping pills or alcohol to help you sleep. Factor this into your schedule and give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and adjust to time changes.

Realize your limits have changed – On a usual trip, I’d be up early to walk around a city all day, have a late lunch (or maybe just a big afternoon beer) followed by more museums and exploration, and still be up for checking out the local nightlife. Once pregnant, I required more sleep and three solid meals a day (plus maybe some snacks, I am eating for two!), tired after walking short distances, and was ready to call it a night long before last call. If you have an itinerary, pare it down to the must-sees and double the time to see everything; better to take it easy and enjoy your trip than feel exhausted and sick.

Look for destinations that don’t require vaccinations – One of the first tests your doctor will give you after confirming pregnancy will be for immunizations to hepatitis and rubella. If you haven’t had the vaccines, they will have to wait until after the baby is born as they are not safe for pregnant women. I have not had the hepatitis vaccine yet, and thus have a greater risk of contracting it, which rules out much of Africa and southeast Asia for travel, but also means I must avoid raw vegetables including salad in Istanbul. Most other medications and vaccines commonly given to travelers before going to an area prone to Malaria, Typhoid or Yellow Fever are not advised for pregnant women. But there’s still a big world out there, check the CDC for destination-specific information.

Be extra aware of food and water safety – Pregnant women are more susceptible to food poisoning the average person, as the immune system is suppressed so it doesn’t reject the fetus. This is the reason most pregnant women are told to avoid sushi and food that is not prepared in sanitized conditions. Even adventurous eaters should play it safe while pregnant and drink bottled water when in doubt. I recently had an opportunity to visit Mumbai, India but after consulting with a few friends who had lived there, I worried I’d spend the trip inside my hotel room eating pre-packaged food. Again,

check the CDC and use the same common sense you’d use anytime while traveling: stick with food that is freshly prepared in restaurants full of people.


Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, travelling in the second trimester, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

[Photo courtesy Mike Barish from the Istanbul tram]

Travel Agent scams thousands by selling fake vouchers

Travel agent scam Avoiding the hustle is part of travel. You look for the good deals, and inspect the great deals with much scrutiny, hoping for it to shake out in the end. From $10 easyjet flights from London-Gatwick to free cab rides in Bangkok, anyone that has done either realizes rather quickly the high price of low cost. Whether it be wasting an afternoon at tourist traps or corralled like cattle onto a perpetually late and uncomfortably full flight, part of travel is finding the balance between value and comfort.

A woman in New Jersey provided neither value nor comfort as she executed a low rent Ponzi scheme peddling fraudulent Continental Airlines travel vouchers. Apparently, this woman – travel agent Victoria Scardingo, sold over 2000 fake travel vouchers for between $500 and $600 to well meaning rubes that assumed they were buying round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world. Instead of the bargain of the century, the buyers received a thorough fleecing. The vouchers were completely worthless.So what did she do with the money? According to CNN, Victoria had a penchant for Louis Vuitton and Coach bags, spending well over $15,000 at the two stores. She also purchased over half a million dollars in flights to keep the scheme running by distributing real tickets to the early adopters. In a Ponzi scheme, those that invest earliest are generally compensated with value gathered by later adopters. Eventually, keeping the scam alive was too costly, collapsing under the weight of customer demand.

“Now the only trip she will be taking is to federal prison,” says Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Scardingo faces up to 20 years in the slammer and the cool million she deposited into her bank account is worth no more than one of her $500 travel vouchers.

flickr image via Magnus Bråth