Are Those "Free" United Tickets Part of a Broken System?

Should we really have to deal with these super-complex rules that the airline industry throws in our way? We shouldn't have to absorb pages of complex information in order to fly with a little class. The fix is pretty simple. It is equal parts reform and disclosure.
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When it comes to air travel, there's a growing rift between informed and uninformed passengers.

I see it every day. A reader contacts me asking for help with a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket or to change the name on an unchangeable reservation or to get their expired airline miles unexpired. Common sense tells you it shouldn't be a problem. But spend a little bit of time studying the rules, and you'd know it is.

Ah, rules. They're dense, cryptic, wrapped in legalese. But they do not apply to all customers.

A small subset of air travelers has taken the time to obsessively study every restriction, paragraph and clause. They often spend hours figuring out a creative way around those silly roadblocks that are meant to extract more money from customers. They get "free" airline tickets, as they did yesterday. That doesn't make these "hackers" better or more deserving of the preferred treatment they get -- they're just better-informed.

Alas, the vast majority of travelers don't bother to read the fine print, because they have better things to do with their time. And they pay a high price for it, often end up boarding last, being banished to the worst seats, or losing their entire ticket purchase on a technicality.

It's this chasm between the know-it-alls and the know-nothings that seems to be growing. It's a knowledge gap.

It shouldn't exist.

I don't know jack

The hopelessness of the situation became clear to me during an exchange on a social network following the publication of a story that was deeply critical of airline loyalty programs. So did the solution.

After the article appeared, one of the frequent flier apologists, who took my criticism personally, messaged me. He insisted that loyalty programs were absolutely "free" and that the first-class tickets he'd just scored for his vacation had cost him absolutely nothing. That's something I should know, he said, given my "vast knowledge of frequent flier programs."

He was being facetious.

And misguided.

Fact is, you do pay dearly for each award ticket in many ways. Maybe you spend more for your airfare over the long term. Maybe you waste your time collecting miles that don't even belong to you. Or maybe you fly a less convenient route or just give your valuable personal information to the company. But calling it "free" is stupid. There's no such thing as "free" -- at best, you're getting a discount.

But at that moment, I also realized that the argumentative reader had made an absolutely valid point.

I do not have a "vast" expert-level knowledge of the often frustrating, consumer-hostile loyalty programs. I'm too busy saving the world from avaricious airlines.

Do I know which airline participates in what alliance? Do I have any idea what the terms and conditions on the latest mileage bonus offer are? Can I find an award ticket for a flight to Hawaii for Christmas? No.

The same is true for the highly complex fare rules governing each airline ticket. Am I aware of the difference between "B" and an "X" fare class? Nah, I'm a little fuzzy on it. Do I even know where to find the fare rules? Often, I don't.

Don't get me wrong -- ignorance is not bliss. Knowing some this stuff can help you have a smoother flight. If I had a job that required me to spend several days a week flying, you bet I'd take the time to learn the rules, too.

But should it be necessary?

Should we really have to deal with these super-complex rules that the airline industry throws in our way? I mean, look at the contracts on other modes of transportation, like buses or trains. By comparison they're fairly straightforward. So are their loyalty programs; you travel a lot and you get a few reasonable perks. How often do you hear about someone "gaming" Amtrak's loyalty program or demanding BoltBus honor a mistake fare?

Plain English, please

The fix is pretty simple. It is equal parts reform and disclosure. Like a vast majority of air travelers, I don't have the time to memorize who participates in what codesharing alliance. Like most travelers, I don't even have the time to look up the rules on my ticket to see when and where my ticket can be used, changed or refunded. I only do it when I'm in trouble and I need to make a change or ask for a refund.

I'm bothered by the rise of a group of hobbyists who memorize every rule and regulation and who behave as if the passengers who don't do the same deserve to be treated worse than stowaways on a cargo ship. They're wrong. We, the majority of air travelers, shouldn't have to become trivia experts in order to fly with dignity.

So here's my proposed fix. Airlines can start by streamlining the rules and regulations so they're understandable and accessible by their customers. Southwest Airlines does a nice job of this, generally speaking. Airline contracts of carriage should be written in plain English, not legalese gobbledegook. My position on codesharing alliances? End them, please.

The second solution? Disclosure. Simply checking a little box that says you've read and acknowledged the fare rules isn't enough. Show them to us in a way we can understand, and if you can't, find a translator and get busy. Give the lawyers a day off.

Customers deserve ticket terms that are simple and reasonable. They deserve program rules that are understandable. Even the summaries at the top of the tickets that say "NO CHNG/NONREF" is a little cryptic. I mean, who writes this stuff?

We shouldn't have to absorb pages of complex information in order to fly with a little class.

Of course, the "haves," who spend their waking hours studying this useless information as if it is sacred scripture like the system the way it is, because it rewards them and makes them feel special. Many airlines want to keep it this way too because it extracts more money from most of their customers, better known as the "have-nots."

But these ridiculous rules are making most of us miserable and rewarding the wrong people.

It's time to end them.

After you've left a comment here telling me that I'm tilting at windmills -- and I am, so don't waste your time -- let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle).