This week we delve into a topic that feels like it would be more at home on a tech blog than a travel blog: hacking.
You may or may not have noticed the uptick in hacking incidents related to the travel industry recently. In 2015 both American Airlines and United were victims of “cyber attacks” where their systems were compromised resulting in customer information being stolen as well tickets being fraudulently purchased. And then there is the matter of Delta airlines in August of this year when their system was completely down due to what the airline explained was a “power outage”. More on this later. While some people would be quick to label these acts “cyber terrorism”, I would choose not to since no investigations have found this to be the case and furthermore, because I detest how frequently the word terrorism is thrown about by the media in order to scare people. This being said, there are some things to worry about when it comes to hacking airlines.
First, airlines are private companies, and as such their main concern is making money. Why mention this? Because airlines are loathe to report bad news about their operations which could adversely affect the share price and therefore cost them a lot of money. One could also say that such information could create the conditions for a vicious circle as well: the airline reports that it has been hacked, resulting in a loss of value vis a vis share price. This in turn makes the public wary of traveling with said airline, resulting in decreased sales, eventually leading to lower share prices… and the circle continues. Essentially, it is difficult to get a straight answer from the airlines when they have technical problems, just like it is difficult to get straight answers when they have mechanical problems or a plane crash because they do not want to do more damage to the company from bad publicity.
This makes the recent events concerning Delta all the more relevant because there have been some interesting developments since the “blackout”. First, it appears this is the first time since the invention of electricity that a blackout singled out a particular company rather than a particular geographic location. The company said the cause of the system outage was a blackout, yet none of the people or businesses in the area surrounding Delta headquarters in Atlanta reported experiencing a blackout. Furthermore, the blackout affected all delta systems worldwide. Later, Delta walked back their statement and claimed it was a “system blackout” whatever that is. There has been some reporting on this incident and one could make the case that Delta is trying to cover up the fact they were the victim of a cyber attack that compromised their entire system. This is in fact what has been reported by Debka File, a site with clear connections to Israeli intelligence and people who would be in a position to know such information.
Most of these events seem remote to many people, unless they are directly affected by the incidents. Most customers stranded due to Delta’s “blackout” would take it in stride just the same as if they were delayed due to bad weather, or other benign circumstances. But it is important to recognize the dangers here. An airline is responsible for the lives of a great many people every day who are traveling, and while a system failure could present serious problems for them, it would be much worse if the air infrastructure of the US (or any other country) is attacked. Think if the chaos that could ensue if the FAA air traffic control systems were compromised, or if even a main center like NYC was taken offline. We are not talking about reservation systems and frequent flyer numbers, but collision avoidance, radar, ILS and other vital systems that keep planes from crashing into each other. The likelihood of one of these types of attacks seems only to grow with the sophistication of those who engage in these types of attacks.
Recently, you cannot go anywhere on the web without seeing a news story related to the TSA, and all the news is bad. The Transportation Safety Administration, one of the most loathed agencies in the U.S. government, is facing an ever-increasing din of negative publicity in the media, harsh criticism from lawmakers, and an astounding backlash from the public; the agency has rightfully earned such scorn, due to its inability to reduce long lines at major airports or to prove that its existence increases passenger safety, but if you think this may result in the eventual demise of this hated institution, do not start celebrating just yet.
What seemed a good idea in the wake of the September 2001 attacks, has now lost nearly all credibility with the public and many in government. The agency has repeatedly demonstrated that it has not made the public safer with its numerous and well publicized failures to detect contraband items in tests. Furthermore, it has grown into an unwieldy bureaucratic fiefdom of the Department of Homeland Security, that refuses to accept responsibility for its shortcomings and poor management.
While the law that created the TSA was specifically written to include the possibility of airports using private companies (there are only fifteen airports nationwide that have private companies), the TSA has naturally been resistant to allow airports to switch. It is clear why they would do this, it would prove the TSA is unnecessary. The law requires that private security companies comply with TSA security procedures, that they have equivalent staffing, and pay in relation to the TSA. What this means, is that even if airports were to switch to private companies, not much would be likely to change because of these requirements.
The recent criticism by members of Congress, while unprecedented in it harshness, has still not resulted in major reforms. The new head of the TSA, Peter Neffenger, fired the Head of Security Operations, Kelly Hoggan, a man who was paid over $90K in bonuses while presiding over the current crisis as well as the debacle related to the failure of 67 of 70 secret tests where guns, knives and other contraband was not detected in carry on luggage. The surprising thing about this firing is that it is the first time the TSA has actually sacked anybody in upper management since the agency was created fifteen years ago.
The public outcry against the TSA has only grown from year to year, and this year it has reached a fever pitch due to the inordinately long waiting lines at major airports. Congress and the TSA are pointing fingers at each other, but this has not solved the problem. The TSA claims the fault lies with Congress for slashing the TSA’s frontline workforce by roughly 5000 people. The Congress has pushed back insisting that TSA has mismanaged staffing so that their budget would be restored. Clearly, there are not enough people in government willing to eliminate the TSA, but that is eventually what needs to happen. The careerist bureaucrats will resist this at every turn and as always resort to fear-mongering the public to accept it. But it is clear from the record of other countries who have private airport security screeners(France, Italy. Germany), that the days of the TSA are numbered; it is not clear, however, how long it will take before this hated agency reaches its end.
Recently, I had the good fortune to visit Ireland on holiday. I would recommend Ireland to anyone and personally, I wish that I would have visited sooner. If you have never been to Ireland, you definitely should go because it is a wonderful place with an interesting culture, history, and a plethora of beautiful natural landscapes.
Starting Point: Dublin. Dublin is not only the capital of Ireland (Republic of), it is also the largest city and metropolitan area in the country. Over two million people live in the city or its environs. Dublin is served by a beautiful and modern airport that is located north of the city. Aer Lingus, the national carrier, has direct service to many destinations in central Europe as well as north America. Dublin has an extensive public bus system, and there are a limited number of street car lines, but no subway. Taxis are also readily available almost anywhere in the city day or night. If you need to take the bus from the airport into the city, you should be aware that the city buses are the cheapest and take the longest to get to the center because of the traffic congestion and the number of stops, but there are many coach lines that are express service to the center for about twice the amount of the city bus one way. If you travel with the city bus, it is best to purchase a ticket from the machines at the airport because the bus drivers do not accept bills and you must have exact change.
Dublin is a vibrant city with many different attractions. The city center is crowded with tourists and locals alike. Traffic congestion is a big problem in Dublin as the cars, delivery vehicles, and buses all compete for the limited space on the narrow streets; by the way, they drive on the left side of the street, so it is a good thing that at the crosswalks that they tell you to look right for oncoming traffic. If you are planning to travel in the city you should consider getting a Leap Card, that is a bus pass available at most grocery stores, post offices, and other retail establishments. You can get a three or five day unlimited pass, and then you can reload the card with money after the unlimited travel has expired. The five day pass costs 30 EUR.
Pubs galore. Naturally, you will want to visit one or twelve of Dublin’s wonderful pubs. You cannot walk more than a few hundred meters without seeing a new one. The atmosphere is always friendly and inviting and the food and beer are delicious. You cannot visit Dublin, or Ireland for that matter, without having at least one pint of Guinness. If you do not like beer, or you do not like stouts, do not worry, they have plenty of different beers to choose from at most pubs, including ales, and lagers from all over the globe. Be ready to open your wallet, a pint of beer is usually 5-6 EUR. You should probably avoid the Temple Bar unless you cannot live without visiting the most packed tourist pub in Dublin. In the Temple Bar section of Dublin, there are literally hundreds of Pubs and all of them are pretty good so do not be afraid to explore. I personally liked the Porter House, which is a brew pub near Trinity College. They make their own beer, so no Guinness on tap, and the food was great. Another nice pub was the Long Stone, a viking themed pub.
Places not to miss. Of course, you have to visit O’Connell Street in the center of the city. This is one of the main shopping districts in the city. This is also the location of the Dublin Spire. There are shops of every description. Do not forget to visit the GPO (General Post Office) site of the 1916 Easter Rising. Dublin Castle is also worth the visit. It is the former seat of power for the English Lord Governors prior to Irish independence, and now it is the formal location for the swearing in of the heads of state and where formal state affairs are held. The castle is a whole complex of buildings including, a church, gardens and the castle itself. If you go, you should try to visit on a Wednesday, because admission is free. Saint Stephen’s Green is the best known park in Dublin. Wonderful verdant grass, trees, a small lake, and many different birds, it holds a certain charm for the Dubs and tourists alike. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is also a great place to see. The admission is only 3 EUR, which is really a bargain considering that you can wait and get the guided tour at no extra cost. Jonathan Swift is interned there. Trinity College is also worth a visit. The guided tour is 13 EUR, which is a little steep, but it also allows you to see the Trinity Library, which is really impressive, as well as admission to The Book of Kells, an illuminated copy of the Bible from the middle ages. Inside the Trinity College Library is the Buru Harp, the symbol of Ireland.
The tour of the Guinness Brewery, is actually a tour of the old Guinness warehouse, and costs 29 EUR; the brewery itself is located on the banks of the Liffey and is not open to the public. I did not take the tour because I found the price to be a bit exorbitant. The Jameson Distillery also has tours for 16 EUR, which I also found too pricey. Do not worry, you can find official Guinness merchandise in every souvenir shop in Dublin, and there is no shortage of those.
I found it particularly helpful that all the public buses in Dublin have free Wifi. In fact, there were not many places in Dublin that do not have free Wifi. This is really nice because it can help you orient yourself with GPS enabled phones.
Come back next week for a further review of other places visited in Ireland, namely Galway, Kilkenny, Howth, and County Wicklow.
This week Sir Trips-a-lot takes on the issue of flying with children. Most people have a vague understanding that children are handled differently than adults when it comes to airline tickets, but they do not understand the specifics. With this blog entry we hope to clarify flying with children in a way that provides insight from the airline perspective.
Most adults are inculcated with the idea that children are persons that have not yet reached the age of majority in their respective countries, and in this they are correct; a child cannot purchase their own airfare, neither for themselves nor for anyone else. A child under the age of eighteen cannot legally own a credit card, and the airlines cannot make a booking for an under-age child without an adult to pay and arrange the travel. But the definition of a child according to the airlines is different than the legal definition of a child for a very simple reason: the size and weight of the human being that is transported.
Air travel, unlike other forms of travel, must be cognizant of weight at all times. An aircraft must be balanced with the distribution of cargo (luggage), fuel, and passengers at all times. Most airline customers think the airlines are just greedy, and at times they are, and they want to charge passengers as adults at the earliest age possible. The reality is that based on weight, they cannot justify giving the child discount on the fare once the child reaches twelve years old because they would start to lose money based on the amount of fuel consumed per passenger.
According to standard industry practices, any passenger twelve years and older is considered an adult and is charged a full fare. Children are passengers between the ages of two and eleven. A child fare is charged at 75% of the full fare price; thus the child fare discount is 25%. An infant is any passenger that is under the age of two and does not need its own seat. This means the infant must sit on the lap of the adult passenger with whom the ticket is issued in conjunction. If the infant must make a seat reservation, the infant will charged the child fare. For domestic air travel, infants without a seat travel free of charge, provided that they are under the age of two for the duration of travel. If the child turns three between the departure date and the return date of a flight, the airlines will charge them the half round-trip fare for a child on the return flight. International travel for infants is charged at 10% of the adult fare, or 90% reduction from full fare. The taxes for infants may or may not be charged at a discounted rate by the airline depending on the route.
For international travel, the airlines will normally provide infant cots free of charge for passengers traveling with infants. The passenger must make this request directly with the airline beforehand and the request must be confirmed by the airline. There are a limited amount of cots per flight (depending on the aircraft) and passengers with infants are usually seated in bulkhead rows where the baby cot can be reseted on a shelf built for that purpose or on the floor.
Unaccompanied minors. The airlines will allow children to fly without an adult. There are stipulations the airlines require for such tickets. The child must be at least five years old. Most airlines charge an extra service fee for minors traveling alone because the airline must assign personnel to make sure the child gets on and off the plane and that they are escorted in case they have a connecting flight. The rules for unaccompanied minors vary greatly from airline to airline, as well as the costs, so it is best to go directly to the airline to find out what is required. For example, with Virgin Atlantic, they require contact information for the adults dropping off and picking up the child, plus the confirmed request in the system, and the child has to pay the full adult fare, but with KLM, the child will pay an extra 75EUR per direction as the fee.
We hope this blog has provided you with the necessary information for you to make an informed purchase when considering flying with children. Remember, information is power. Happy traveling.
In this installment of Sir Trips-a-lot we will be exploring the topic of rebooking airline tickets. We start with a small introduction to the topic to familiarize you with the concept and then we will give more detailed information later. If you have not read our posts on Airline booking codes and airline fare rules
A great many people probably never rebook their airline tickets. They know when they want to travel or when they have to travel and they consider their tickets to be mainly fixed for those dates and do not entertain the thought of changing them. Another group of people understand that it is possible to change airline tickets for different times or dates, but think it is a hassle and a waste of money. Finally, there are those people who think that they should be able to change their tickets whenever they want because they are the customer and it is their right. As travel agents, our job mainly consists of three tasks that occur every day: giving general travel information, making new bookings, and cancelling/rebooking existing bookings. Rebooking flights is one of the main tasks that every agent must master, but it is not as simple as most customers think. Keep in mind the following three questions when thinking about rebooking.
Is rebooking possible? The first thing the customer must understand when they wish to rebook their flight is whether rebooking is allowed. Many customers automatically think they can rebook a flight because they purchased the tickets in the first place and so they think they “own” them and can change them at will. They could be wrong because what they do not know or understand is the airlines have many different fares at many different price points which dictate whether the ticket can be changed or not. Most customers do not know that when they purchase airline tickets they agree to all the terms and conditions of the airline which includes the fare rules for the particular fare purchased. If you buy tickets and you think you may need to change the dates, make sure that you read the fare rules first so you can see if it is changeable and how much you will be charged.
How much will I have to pay? If you buy a really cheap fare from New York to Paris, say less than $500, the chances are very good that you have bought a ticket that is non-refundable and non-changeable. Essentially, the airline has given you a very steep discount and therefore they have decided that you cannot change the ticket. If you want to change your dates or times, you will have to buy a new ticket. The best rule of thumb for customers is: the cheaper the ticket, the more restrictive the fare rules. The next price point would be one that allows changes but the rebooking fee is expensive. Staying with the previous example, if you were flying American or Delta airlines, the cheapest fare that allows rebooking would probably charge a $250 rebooking fee to rebook. In most cases you would also have to pay the difference in fare between the original fare and the new fare; more on that later. The final possibility would be a fare which is changeable for a modest rebooking fee or no fee at all. This is less likely because this would apply to business class fares, special corporate fares, or first class fares. In this case, our flight to Paris may be possible to change for a rebooking fee of $75 for a lower business class fare and the chance of fare difference is less likely because you have already purchased an expensive fare to start.
What are the restrictions? Most customers are unaware of what happens when they rebook a ticket. They think it is a simple matter of changing a date or time in the system. Unfortunately, it is a much more involved process and there are many restrictions which can make rebooking difficult. Assuming that you have a ticket that is changeable, there are more conditions to the fare that must be checked by the agent before the rebooking can be made. Some tickets have an advanced purchase restriction. You may have heard of the seven, fourteen, and twenty-one day advanced purchase tickets because when you buy the ticket longer in advance, the fare is cheaper. What you may not know is this advanced purchase restriction is also valid for rebooking, because rebooking is really like purchasing a new ticket. Therefore, you may wish to change your ticket, and it may be possible according to the fare rules, but if you are within the AP period, you will not be able to rebook. Another exception to rebooking is the minimum or maximum stay. Some tickets have a minimum stay of seven days, some have a minimum stay overnight from Saturday to Sunday, called the Sunday rule. Some tickets have a maximum stay of thirty days, others three or six months, and finally there is the ticket with the max stay of twelve months. No ticket is good for more than one calendar year and this can be determined by the individual airline to be effective from the date of purchase, or from the date of departing travel. If your travel would break any of the minimum/ maximum parameters, the rebooking will not be allowed. Changes in routing could also be restricted or not allowed. And, even if your change conforms to all the above provisions, it is still possible you will not be able to rebook if the dates you have chosen fall in a blackout period, fall in a different seasonal booking period, or require that you travel with a different partner carrier. This last point about partnership flights (aka. Codeshares) requires more clarification.
Airlines partner with other airlines so they can offer more fares to more destinations. While this is a benefit for the customer and the airline, it also makes rebooking more complicated. Some airlines have full partnership agreements such as Delta, KLM, and Air France. In this kind of arrangement, almost all flights on partner carriers are allowed and it makes rebooking easier because there are fewer booking class restrictions. It is less important on whose paper the ticket was issued. In the other case, where one airline is considered the main carrier (who issued the ticket) because they operate the long-haul flight, the other carrier is considered the inter-line carrier (operates the regional short-haul flight) and there are restrictions to which booking class and which flights are allowed when making changes. For instance, it may be stipulated in the fare rules that only flight numbers 4XXX-5XXX are allowed on this inter-line carrier, or that all passengers on this inter-line carrier must be booked in booking class S. If booking class S is filled, then the rebooking cannot be completed. Many customers are unaware of these restrictions and sometimes think they can change to any flight on any carrier that flies to the final destination, but this is not true. How can you tell if you have a codeshare flight? Normally you will see “operated by..” in the flight itinerary. Example: British Airways from London to Houston, TX may say “Operated by American Airlines.” This means that the flight is a BA flight, issued by BA but the machine and crew are American Airlines. Another easy way to see if a flight is a codeshare is to look at the flight number. Anytime you have four numbers in a flight number, it is a codeshare. Example: AA8081 is an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Berlin, but the actual flight is operated by Air Berlin with an airplane belonging to Air Berlin. When booking directly with the airlines, they more or less know which codeshares will be allowed, but when you book with a website, it is up to the individual agents to know or find out what is and is not allowed. In fact, some websites do not allow their agents to rebook from three digit, to four digit flight numbers or vice versa because of the chances for mistakes to occur.
Fare Difference. The rebooking fee is by no means the only cost associated with rebooking. It is possible to rebook for just the cost of the rebooking fee only when the exact same fare (booking class) you originally purchased is still available. If you purchased a ticket three months before you were going to travel in booking class S, and then two weeks before your departure you decide that you need to move the trip up three days earlier, the chances that the same booking class will be available are considerably less, because there are fewer unsold seats. Example:
In the above graphic line 3 is the availability for Cathay Pacific flight 421. Note that S class has a zero meaning there are no seats available. In this case the next higher class in Economy would be Y which has seven seats. Y class is unrestricted economy, the most expensive economy fare. The fare difference in this example would be quite large.
As every customer knows, the cheapest fares sell first and the most expensive sell last; changing your booking means buying a new seat in a plane that is already partially full. This results in the customer being required to pay the difference in fare between the original fare and the new fare that is available on the day you wish to change. Prices can change dramatically based on current availability which is why if you want to rebook, you must pay in full on the same day the change is made. In addition to the fare difference, many websites charge their own administrative fees for rebooking which can make the total cost of rebooking soar.
Restrictions placed on rebooking by the airlines matter to the customer and they matter to travel agents. What you as a customer must realize is the airlines structure the fare rules to benefit the airline and not the customer or the travel agent. If the agent makes a mistake and rebooks a flight for a customer that is not allowed, the airline will charge the agent (not personally) with the mistake. The airlines either get their money from the customer or from the travel agency, it is all the same to them. The customer will not know of an agent error unless the rebooking cannot be executed, which then results in the embarrassing situation of the agent having to call the customer and explain they made a mistake.
As a customer, you should know that if you want to change an existing flight reservation, there are a lot of variable to consider, and that there is a lot of work that goes on in the background to make sure the changes conform to the rules of the airline. Always inform yourself of the fare rules for your ticket before you buy and if you do not understand the restrictions ask a travel agent or airline sales representative for clarification.
Luggage Salesman: Have you thought much about luggage Mr. Banks?
Joe Banks: No.
Luggage Salesman: Luggage is the central preoccupation of my life.
– Joe Versus the Volcano
In this installment of the Sir-Trips-A Lot Blog we take on the topic of airline baggage. If you think that this is a fairly straight-forward and simple topic, you will probably be surprised how complicated it can be. The airlines love to make everything as complicated as possible because it affords them more opportunities to charge extra fees or to provide you with poor service and to fall back on their terms of service as an excuse.
Pieces vs. Weight. All airlines are not created equal. You already instinctively if not experientially know this, but it comes more clearly into focus when talking about airline baggage policies. There are no standards for checked and hand luggage and the rules vary greatly from carrier to carrier. What might be true for one carrier is often not true for the next. Here is a basic difference that is common among carriers; most follow either a piece concept or weight concept for checked baggage. The piece concept is fairly common in the United States and Europe; in the middle east, and particualy
among Asian carriers, the weight concept is more common. The difference is that the limit for checked baggage is based on the number of pieces, or the total weight. With the weight concept, a passenger can have as many bags as they want so long as the total weight does not exceed the weight limit. So when you fly with Turkish Airlines between Europe and Turkey, you are allowed 20kg (44lbs) of luggage. Technically, this means you could have 20 bags weighing 1kg each if you wanted. According to the piece concept, the passenger is limited by the number of pieces. The number of pieces is determined by the route, and the cabin class, or fare that the customer has purchased. So, an international flight from the US to Europe would have a baggage allowance of one piece for economy class, two pieces for premium economy and business class, and four ( or more) pieces for first class. The confusing part about the piece concept is that there is also a weight limit involved. The maximum weight for a normal bag is 23kg (50lbs); however, it is possible to have “overweight” bags which weigh more than 23kg.
The absolute maximum weight for any one piece of luggage is 32kg (70lbs). The reason for this upper limit is because the baggage has to be lifted by actual people on and off the aircraft. The airlines will
absolutely love you to death if you go over the weight limit because then they can charge you obscenely high excess baggage fees. The policies for excess baggage fees also vary from airline to airline and are outrageously expensive. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken to customers who “just want to check an extra bag” only to recoil in shock and irritation at the fact that an extra bag
will cost $250. They almost always decide it is not worth it.
How do the airlines figure the baggage allowance? It is completely capricious. I am old enough to remember when the airlines allowed two bags per passenger for domestic flights in the US for every
passenger in coach. Those days are long gone. Up until 2007 is was still common to find carriers that allowed one checked bag for domestic economy and two checked bags for international flights. Sadly, that time has also passed. Now, most airlines shrewdly use checked baggage as another avenue for profit. As the pendulum has swung to the extreme of trying to charge customers for every checked bag,and the airlines have accelerated their race to the bottom, the airlines are now having to deal with the customers trying to shove as much as possible into carry-on luggage. Now in-cabin bag space is increasingly fought over by customers, particularly the overhead bins.
Low-Cost Airlines. Up to this point we have spoken about normal airlines, but when you are flying with Budget, or Low-Cost Carriers (LCC), the rules are also different. For LCC, you always have to pay for luggage. In the rare cases, the LCC will have fare levels which will have baggage included (Germanwings is a good example). Trust me when I say that you are paying for the baggage with this fare, you are also paying for the privilege of being able to rebook the ticket, which will also have extra fees. So, the rule of thumb with LCC is there is NO free checked baggage allowance. You will have to pay per piece, and sometimes per kilogram, for any checked baggage. The good thing about this is that you can check as many pieces as you want, or closer to the truth, as much as you can afford. Another important fact to be aware of with LCC is that you should always pay for the checked luggage at the time you make the booking because they usually charge more when you check bags at the counter.
The best advice that I can give the average airline customer is to contact the airline directly when you have questions about the baggage allowance. Most people who work as travel agents have
general knowledge about the “normal” baggage allowance, but it is important to remember that a customer service agents for an online travel agency will be responsible for assisting customers who have purchased tickets from possibly hundreds of different airlines and it is not possible to know the exact information for every carrier in every case. Inform yourself before you buy a ticket, there are many websites that have basic information for many of the most popular airlines and if you do not understand the baggage policy of a particular airline from their complicated explanation on their website, well that is why they have toll free customer service numbers. Do not be afraid to call the airline with these questions, if they want your business they will have to explain the policy for their
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