Sunday, 1 April 2007

The Amazing Race 11 (All-Star Edition), Episode 7

Stone Town, Zanzibar (Tanzania) - Warsaw (Poland) - Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland) - Krakow (Poland) - Ojcow National Park (Poland)

My first travel job was with an agency specializing in airline tickets to and from Africa (among other complex international tickets). And one of the first lessons I learned was that finding flights to, from, and within Africa is different from, and more difficult than, finding flights elsewhere in the world. Because few Africans can afford to fly, airline capacity is extremely limited relative to the populations of many African countries. Even between national capitals and other major cities in Africa, direct flights are relatively uncommon, and may operate only once or twice a week, rather than every day. Flights between regions of Africa (such as between West and east Africa) are especially rare. Only a couple of airlines (preeminently Ethiopian Airlines, and more recently South African Airlines), operate extensive intra-African international networks, so journeys between regions often require using multiple airlines.

So it was typical of African air travel that the racers’ journeys from Maputo to Zanzibar, and then from Zanzibar to Warsaw (a city without direct flights from anywhere in Africa) all involved complex routings, multiple changes of planes, and long layovers.

Joyce and Uchenna went to the South African Airways ticket office. Not surprisingly, they weren’t told of the faster routings (not involving SAA flights) through Nairobi, but were sent 2500 km (1500 miles) in the wrong direction through SAA’s hub in Johannesburg.

Interline connections via Nairobi would have been the best options for the racers, both going to and coming from Zanzibar. Some of the teams were told about connections on the same airline (Air Malawi) from Jo’burg to Zanzibar via Lilongwe, but apparently none were told about the more frequent interline connections from Jo’burg to Zanzibar via Nairobi.

Bill and Joe, who were eliminated from the first season of the race after they missed an opportunity to take a more direct set of flights, were eliminated once again this season after they (and several of the other teams) waited around at a travel agency in Zanzibar for 7 hours, rather than taking the first flight to the regional hub of Nairobi (as Mirna and Charla had done the week before when they took the first flight out of Maputo to Johannesburg) where there would have been more chances of getting on some flight toward their ultimate destination.

But as I’ve mentioned during previous seasons of the race, complex interline routings are the ones that are hardest to find, and that airlines — or, as the racers found out in Zanzibar, most travel agencies — are least likely to suggest.

Ironically, the same week that The Amazing Race thus spotlighted the importance of through ticketing and other “interline” arrangements between airlines, especially for smaller local and regional airlines, the USA Department of Transportation issued a long-pending ruling that will make it yet more difficult to find the best connections on routes like these, and more likely that travellers will be routed further out of their way through the hubs of larger airlines that belong to the dominant global marketing alliances.

Normally, agreements between competitors to set joint prices would violate antitrust law in the USA. But because it was obviously impossible to get to most international destinations without using multiple airlines, and because of the benefits to travellers of being able to buy a single ticket instead of having to buy separate tickets for each connecting flight, the DOT has long granted the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) a limited exemption from USA antitrust law in order to set interline procedures and joint “industry” fares.

Airlines are free (subject to the provisions of the aviation treaties between the countries served) to set their own fares for “online” service, but for complex journeys with multiple stopovers, or connections between multiple airlines, the IATA fares are often cheaper, more flexible, and better value for travellers than a series of separate tickets on each different airline.

More recently, the DOT has granted case-by-case antitrust waivers to major airline marketing alliances (Oneworld, Star Alliance, Skyteam, etc.) and code-sharing partnerships to “coordinate” fares, routes, and schedules between their member airlines.

In July 2006, the DOT proposed to eliminate the antitrust exemption for IATA’s “traffic conferences” to set prices on trans-Atlantic routes (including between the USA and Africa, where there are almost no direct flights).

As I explained at that time, the DOT’s proposal was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the IATA interline fares, by whom they are used, and their benefits for consumers in those cases. The DOT’s proposal was also based on an unquestioning acceptance of the claims of the largest airlines that a dozen or so airlines can over a worldwide route network and frequency of service comparable to that of IATA’s 200-plus members.

On 30 March 2007, the DOT announced a final order identical to its original proposal. Although the DOT claims to have “considered” the public comments, it appears that the DOT’s conclusion was pre-ordained, and the public comment period a mere formality.

The current IATA interline procedures and industry fares remain in place, but IATA is forbidden to discuss or adopt any changes to them. As they become obsolete, the likely result is that more and more airlines will withdraw from participation in industry fares. At the same time, the antirust exemptions for the largest alliances, and their member airlines in the USA, remain.

The DOT’s ruling is a triumph for the lobbyists of the largest USA-based alliance-member airlines over the interests of smaller unaffiliated airlines elsewhere in the world, and a substantial blow to the interests of travellers between the USA and places without direct or same-airline service (such as most places in Africa) or on less well-travelled routes within and between other parts of the world.

Travellers are clearly the losers in the DOT’s ruling — not surprisingly, since mine were the only comments in the docket from any consumer advocate or any individual or organization other than airlines. In its final order, the DOT acknowledged an purported to “respond” to my comments, but failed to provide any basis for the claim that a ticket valid only on the limited routes of a few airlines is “equivalent” in value to a ticket valid on any of the routes of hundreds of airlines.

For complex journeys, it will be even harder than ever to find the most direct or efficient routings, if they involve multiple airlines that aren’t part of the same alliance. (In a further irony, given the travails of the racers in getting in and out of Tanzania last week and this week, the example one airline gave me of how “useless” interline agreements are was of their agreement, which was being terminated, with Air Tanzania.) And more journeys will require separate tickets for each leg, at a higher total price. More travellers will have to claim and re-check their baggage at connecting points, instead of being able to avail themselves of interline agreements for through baggage checking.

And rather than offering new services to fill the gaps left by withdrawals from interline agreements, the big alliances are likely simply to add more misleading codeshare designations to existing flights, making it appear as though there are more flights and more seats available than there really are.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 1 April 2007, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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