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Insta-CoGo: Direct Flights vs. Nonstop

Cindy Loose

CoGo recently received a letter from a reader apoplectic about US Airways. When calling the airline three times about a ticket from Phoenix to BWI, she wrote, she was distinctly told three times that the flight from Phoenix to BWI was "direct" -- which she assumed meant, well, direct, as in not stopping on the way.

At the airport, she learned the flight was delayed due to problems in Las Vegas. What did Vegas have to do with it? After all, she had a direct flight to Baltimore. She was shocked to learn that direct meant there would be a stop -- and that stop was in Vegas. She wrote that she's been flying for 30 years and has "never experienced a direct flight not meaning direct." She lodged a formal complaint. She looked up the word direct in three different dictionaries and became even more irate at what she considered US Airways' novel definition of direct. For that and all the ensuing inconvenience she wants a "substantial refund."

Sorry. That is standard airline language: direct, meaning a stop where you don't have to change planes, is a definition used by airlines since, well, the beginning of airline history as far as I know.

If you want to go directly from point A to point B without a stop, you want a nonstop flight. This isn't US Airways language, it's airline language.

The reader was also shocked to learn that her credit card had been dinged for $10 reservation fees, in addition to the fare she was quoted. "An additional $10 for each ticket!!!

Save the exclamation points. Again, standard practice for the past few years. If you want to save the fee, book at the airline's Web site, not by phone. Online bookings save the airline money because they don't have to pay a human to discuss the booking.

Oh, and one more thing: Her husband's luggage didn't arrive when the couple did at 9:30 a.m., so they bought $85 worth of essentials before the bag showed up in the wee hours of the following morning.

Whoops, another misunderstanding: Some airlines outline exactly what they'll pay for after a given amount of time, and if you want reimbursement, you have to know those rules before you buy. US Airways's Web site simply says you must contact a baggage agent to discuss what is reimbursable under various circumstances. Given the couple didn't get permission to spend a certain amount, and since the bag showed up in less than 24 hours after arrival, reimbursement isn't in the cards.


That's just the way it is. It's not good news, but it's better to know than to be surprised.

Anyone else out there ever been surprised when a "direct' flight didn't turn out to be "nonstop?"


By Cindy Loose |  January 31, 2008; 1:06 PM ET  | Category:  Air Travel , Cindy Loose , Insta-CoGo
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It boggles my mind that people still look to blame others when they are the ones at fault. The "reader" is to blame for not knowing the rules and regulations. I'm surprised the "reader" is able to write.

Ignorance is no excuse.

Posted by: In Motion... | January 31, 2008 1:27 PM

Spot on In Motion...

Maybe there ought to be some sort of baseline test to see if a potential flyer is intelligent enough.

This could considerably cut down airport lines.

I think I learned the difference between direct and non-stop when I was 8.

Posted by: Kim | January 31, 2008 1:57 PM

Yikes. Wow. I mean, I'm generally inclined to be on the side of the customer, but...I mean, that stuff is all pretty basic.

Posted by: h3 | January 31, 2008 2:20 PM

I'll cut her *some* slack on the first two issues, but thinking the airline was going to pay $65 for essentials?! What kind of shampoo do they use?

Posted by: md | January 31, 2008 2:45 PM

I was similarly surprised when I bought a ticket from Houston to London on British Airways last fall. The word "direct" wasn't used; it simply said "Houston-London" with no connections or stops listed, so I naively assumed it was nonstop. I was surprised to learn shortly before my trip that the plane stopped in Detroit.

The worst part was the return trip from the UK where we were forced to deplane and go through customs with all our checked baggage. We had to recheck baggage and go through security again continuing home to Houston, which pretty much eliminated any benefit from the "direct" flight at all.

A complaint I sent to BA received no reply at all about the misleading nature of their website. I've even gone back to the site and gone through the process again and I don't see anywhere where you might be notified that the flight was not non-stop. I've purchased quite a few flights over the years and never run into a situation like this, but I'll definitely watch out for it in the future.

Posted by: Lucas | January 31, 2008 3:11 PM

Well, it's Customs that makes you get off the plane and go through the most hassling national entry on the planet (where do DMV clerks go when they're too bitter.....the US Customs Dept). Not BA, though that is a function of it being a direct and not non-stop flight.

Posted by: Kim | January 31, 2008 3:23 PM

The British Airways approach you mention sounds unfair. Question is, do they at least outline the itinerary at some point along the way before you buy? As you say, something to look out for.

This discussion brings up another issue I've been meaning to investigate: What's up with airlines that charge you extra for non-stop, then something goes wrong and you get stuck on an alternative flight with connections. Anyone ever tried to get the difference back? Of course knowing the difference is difficult since fares change all the time, but the airlines would know the different prices being sold on a given day.Yet I've never heard of anyone successfully getting something back despite losing the non-stop convenience for which they paid.

Final word: I think you're being a little tough on this customer. If you haven't flown much, it would be perfectly natural for an intelligent person to assume direct means, well, direct like in the dictionary. The stupid people are the ones who are surprised they have to remove metal from their person before going through metal detectors. It's all in the words--direct, okay, that could mean the shortest distance between two points. Metal detector, on the other hand, strongly suggests the detection of metal as being the point of walking through a metal detector, and probably that must mean they don't want you to have metal--or so it would naturally seem to me.

Posted by: Cindy Loose | January 31, 2008 3:39 PM

You know, there are times when a flight continues from one city to the next with a change of equipment. Suppose you're on flight 1234 from IAD to say, Beijing. You can stop along the way, get off the plane, and board another aircraft for the continuation of 1234. It's the same flight (#) and I believe it's still considered direct.

Posted by: even "direct" isn't | January 31, 2008 4:10 PM

As far as I can tell there wasn't any way to tell from BA.com or on the itinerary I printed off the website. The only way I discovered it before I left was by reading a press release from BA after I bought my ticket announcing non-stop flights from Houston Intercontinental to London Heathrow beginning in March 2008. That surprised me because I thought that I had already purchased a ticket for fall 2007, but a call to customer service revealed the Detroit stop.

As I said, I went back through the ticket ordering process on their website and I didn't see any place that indicated that the flight might not be non-stop.

I do realize that having to go through customs in Detroit is a US Customs policy, not anything BA has control over, but that is one of the reasons that I wanted a true non-stop flight, so that's something I lost by not discovering this kind of information before I bought the ticket.

Posted by: Lucas | January 31, 2008 4:22 PM

Actually, chalk me up for not having much sympathy, either. It's one thing if these were new-fangled, euphemistic terms. But they're not.

Besides, I'll take a direct flight with a stop over changing planes any time. At least you don't have to change equipment, and if your layover is long enough and you feel like it, you can deplane and stretch your legs.

And $85 in essentials? What? How much does it cost to run to the nearest Target and pick up a disposable razor, small shaving cream, toothpaste/toothbrush and travel size shampoos for one man? (Maybe a pack of underwear, too.)

If he had something timely (like a business meeting), then he should have had a carry on with his essentials, just like the rest of us.

As for the BA thing - kinda sucks, but we're talking about a flight with Customs involved. You can't get around the Customs two-step. The best Customs experience I ever had was flying out of Calgary: you go through US Customs after you check in and drop off your luggage on a conveyor belt at the end. It makes life so much easier when you make a plane change back in the US.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | January 31, 2008 4:30 PM

Eh, I don't think the metal thing you mention is all *that* dumb, Cindy - if your experience of metal detectors is, say, the metal detectors at the more-visited Smithsonian museums, you might be a little surprised that the folks at the airport want you to take off your coat, sweatshirt, belt, shoes, wallet....

Posted by: h3 | January 31, 2008 4:33 PM

To not include the stop on your itinerary is outrageous. Then again, I'm going to be checking out soon a more outrageous British Airways practice---or I should say at this point an alleged practice. Reader tells me he bought a ticket on BA's website with promise of two nights hotel being included. When the two nights don't show up, he's told he's actually waitlisted for two nights, that no rooms are available. Finally he's told: No rooms available. But they refuse to refund his money. If true, I'm looking forward to them explaining that.

Posted by: cindy loose | January 31, 2008 4:44 PM

To "even direct isn't," who notes that a direct flight might involve a change of equipment, which will force you to get off the plane: That's a good point; direct in some cases might even involve a plane change even though it's a single flight number. Bottom line: If you don't want to stop, go non-stop. If you pay a premium for non-stop and something goes wrong so stops are added, I think the airline owes you the difference, as best they or you can figure it.

Posted by: cindy loose | January 31, 2008 4:48 PM

I just wanted to say I noticed Cindy was going to investigate the BA practice of offering two nights hotel free with flight purchase. I just returned from a trip a week ago where I took advantage of that two night free deal, with zero problems. I feel like I was stealing money, eating the hotel breakfasts for free and everything. I was a huge fan. Sorry to hear it didn't work out for that gentleman, but I do want to make it clear that I used it and it worked, no problems.

Posted by: Arlene | January 31, 2008 10:50 PM

Two years ago I purchased tickets to Belgrade on Alitalia specifically because I could get a non-stop flight from Dulles to Milan and then on to Belgrade. No way to get to Serbia without a stop, but I at least wanted to get to Europe without having to stop at another U.S. city. The ticket cost more than other less-direct routes. About a month before my trip, the airline called to tell me that Alitalia was no longer flying the Dulles-Milan non-stop (at all) and they changed my itinieary to stop in Boston. Needless to say I was not happy and Alitilia did not feel it was necessary to compensate me for the change!

Posted by: JW | February 1, 2008 10:46 AM

I'm going to side with Cindy on the metal detector thing: even if your experience of them is less stringent than the TSA standard, you should know well enough to empty your pockets. There's also usually somebody telling people as they approach the detectors to take off coats, belts, etc. Finally, it's not like this has been a big secret that's gone unreported in the mainstream media for the past 7 years.

Posted by: BxNY | February 1, 2008 12:06 PM

If the person with the positive BA/hotel exprience wants to email me at loosec@washpost.com, I'll consider that as part of an item I do, if in fact the facts of the complaint bear out. (I do have to add that CoGo doesn't always get the complete story from people who write for help.)

Posted by: cindy loose | February 1, 2008 1:13 PM

I learned a long time ago that "non-stop" and "direct" aren't the same thing. Looking closely at "stops" and "changes" in itineraries can be risky depending on the airline, as several commenters note above.

It did, however take me a number of tries to sort of the differences between "Adjacent," "Adjoining," "Connecting," and "Neighboring" hotel rooms.

Posted by: Casta Lusoria | February 7, 2008 3:34 PM

I flew Phoenix to Frankfurt on a "direct" flight on United lst year. The itinerary did not show the stopover AND plane-change in Wahsington/DC, just showed PHX-FRA with a 13 hour flight time.

Since I have flown hundreds of times in the last years this did not surprise me at all and I figured there would be a stop somewhere. If a "direct" flight from the US to Europe is longer than 9-10 hours, better count on changing planes somewhere.

Posted by: Stephan Feist | March 10, 2008 4:59 PM

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