Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains Wall Street Journal columnist Scott McCartney says summer travel will be cheaper this year. McCartney pens the Journal's weekly column "The Middle Seat."
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Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains

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Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains

Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking about summer travel with Scott McCartney, who covers the airline industry for the Wall Street Journal and writes a column about air travel called The Middle Seat. He shared some of his accumulated travel wisdom in a new book called "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact." McCartney says because airlines have reduced the number of flights and are still struggling to fill seats, travelers can expect fewer delays and lower fares this summer.

Any advice on just getting ready and getting to the airport? Do we still need to be there, you know, an hour to two ahead of time? Are there any tips you can offer there?

Mr. SCOTT MCCARTNEY (Travel Writer): I think it's good practice to be there an hour ahead of time. You know, there's still uncertainty over TSA security lines. That's the main thing. TSA has gotten more dependable on that, but you never quite know. And the other thing is, the airlines have cut off baggage earlier and earlier. So if you don't get there within, you know, 30 minutes of departure at some airlines, they're not going to put your bag on the airplane. I think in general it really pays to prepare. You know, it's sort of like, going to the airport is a little bit like going into battle these days.

I'm a big believer in flight ORD systems. You could sign up for email. My favorite is, f-l-i-g-h-t-s-t-a-t-s. Flightstats will send you gate changes, delays; they have multiple sources of information, not just the airlines, but also FAA computers and other things. And I can get word of a problem or delay with my flight while I'm sitting at the gate long before the gate agent ever gets the word. Sometimes that can make the difference between being first in line to get re-accommodated or, you know, and knowing that I'm going to be an hour late and I can call the hotel or make other arrangements.

DAVIES: Really?


DAVIES: You're sitting there at a gate and you know before the gate agent?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: I've actually been on a plane with a colleague, sitting on a plane, and got alerts on my BlackBerry about delays before the captain or the other passengers even knew. And it's pretty simple. A new takeoff time is posted in the FAA computer and, bam, here comes the flight stats, and by the time the information sort of winds its way through the airline operation center and is radioed to the captain or sent to the captain on his computer, it's, you know, and by the time he gets around to announcing it, it's, I've told my colleague, you know, we're not leaving until 9:00 p.m. And then, you know, 15 minutes later the captain announces we'll be leaving at 9:00 p.m.

DAVIES: You are the Jedi knight of air travel, you know that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well it's, you know, it really goes back to the notion that you have to take care of yourself when you travel. You can't expect the airline to do it. You know, the old days of you go to the airport and the nice airline will take care of you, put you up in a hotel room if you get, if the flight gets cancelled or there's a weather delay, I'm a big believer in carrying hotel phone numbers, either the chains or even if you're making a connection in a city, have some local airport hotel phone numbers. The way things are going in the business, if there's a weather problem and your flight gets cancelled, you're on, you basically have to take care of yourself.

The airline may give you a discount voucher for a hotel, may have some inventory of hotels that you could pay for. But basically you're on your own and it may be the difference between a cot at the airport or getting a hotel room, if you can get on - get on your cell phone and make a few calls and find a room yourself.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk a little bit about the state of the airline industry. You know, after 9/11, I guess three of the four largest carriers went into bankruptcy. Have they recovered? Are we going to see more of this now that the recession is biting into revenues?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah. At one time half the industry was under the protection of a bankruptcy court, and today that's not the case. If the recession continues, airlines have suffered large losses and I think, you know, some of them, cash is running out the door and some of them may end up, or at least one of them may end up back in bankruptcy. It's interesting. The state of the industry compared to other industries, other industries that typically struggle in recessions, is really not all that bad. And there are two reasons, one is airlines got a tremendous shock last summer when oil prices ran up so high. And so they went about slashing capacity tremendously.

Then by the time they got the planes out of their schedules, oil prices had started to come down. But they continued with the cuts, and that turned out to be wonderful timing for them for the recession, because just as traffic was really dropping off, they were cutting flights and had done a much better job than they'd ever done in past recessions of getting the timing right. It was wrong reason, right result.

And the other thing that's really saved the industry is, and passengers hate to hear this, are the fees. Fees are producing hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for airlines, and that's really been one difference between sort of mucking along and incurring losses that they can tolerate - at least so far - and you know, being in line for the next federal bailout. It's a kind of joke that it's rare to see such, so many federal bailouts and not have airlines with their hand out.

DAVIES: Our guest is Scott McCartney. He writes the "The Middle Seat" column for the Wall Street Journal and covers the airline industry. His new book is "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Scott McCartney. He covers the airline industry for the Wall Street Journal and writes, "The Middle Seat" column. He also has a new book about how to travel smart. It's "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact."

You know, I have to say, it's so discouraging to hear you say that all of these fees for baggage and seat assignments, etcetera, have made the airlines healthy because it seems to me like it's simply going to encourage every cell phone company and other company to, you know, impose these nickel and dime charges that we just don't see coming. It's kind of a discouraging thing.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah, you know, it really does. There are two kinds of fees. There's the fee that logically makes sense, where you're getting a service and you get some value for the fee. And then there are the fees that are completely illogical and simply punish travelers. I mean one of the most common fees is the cancellation fee or change fee on a reservation. An airline charges $150 on a domestic ticket, as much as $250 on an international ticket, plus the fare difference to make a couple of keystroke changes. It's really sort of, you know, how can you abuse your customer more than that? And then there are the fees that, you know, US Airways has a choice seat program.

They're trying to charge extra for seats in the front of the airplane. You know, the advantage of being in the front of the airplane is, well, you get off the airplane faster, but I'm not sure that's worth, you know, 20 or 30 dollars to most people. If you're - you know, United has the Economy Plus section where you pay more to sit in a seat that gives you five inches extra leg room. Well, that's something of value. A lot of people will appreciate five extra inches of leg room and pay for it. They get something for the fee. The airline is not just taking something routine and trying to create a new fee to slap on it.

DAVIES: You know, you've written recently that the Transportation Security Administration, you know, which governs security at airports, may be forcing a lot of us to change our names? What's that all about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, TSA is moving to a more specific system of checking names against the watch list of terrorists. You know, there's been a lot of trouble with the watch list check. And the problem is, terrorists have a nasty habit of adopting aliases that are common names. So some terrorist somewhere uses the name John Martin at some point or Robert Smith and all of a sudden all John Martins and Robert Smiths find themselves getting searched extensively and hassled by TSA.

Congress has been pushing for this, the 9/11 Commission pushed for this, and what's happening is TSA is going to require you to make your airline reservations in the name that is either on your driver's license or your passport. So for example, Scott is my middle name, and for years and years I flew under Scott McCartney, which is the name I most often use, but that became and is about to become even a bigger hassle, so I've had to change my name. And as far as the airlines know, I'm now Robert, and I make my reservations as Robert. I've had to change my name on my frequent flyer program.

It's a bit confusing for my employer, and you know, other things. But basically your name is going to have to match your passport and a lot of people don't do that. Now, TSA is also going to start requiring airlines to collect some other bits of information about you, your gender and your birth date. And there will also be a provision if you were a Robert Smith who was hassled and went through the TSA's, what they call a Travelers Redress Program, where you send in all of your personal information and try and prove you're not the Robert Smith who was the terrorist, they will give you a clearance number, so to speak, and you'll be able to use that number when you make your reservations, and I think that'll be a great benefit to the people who have been hassled by the name problem. But for I think many people who may fly, you know, just using their initials or using, you know, not being specific about your name, you're going to have to be a lot more specific.

DAVIES: Okay. Well Scott McCartney, it looks like you've got plenty more to track as we move forward. Thanks again for speaking with us.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Oh, it was great to be with you, Dave.

DAVIES: Scott McCartney covers the airline industry for the Wall Street Journal and writes a column called The Middle Seat. His new book is "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel."

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