Caveat Emptor: "Let The Frequent Flyer Beware"

Caveat Emptor: "Let The Frequent Flyer Beware"
Story and photo by Christopher J Davies

We all know that caveat emptor is Latin for, "Let the buyer beware". This phrase should definitely be used when comparing frequent flyer programs and airline policies for redeeming a "free" ticket.

As a member of several frequent flyer programs, I am outraged over the hassle and cost that some airlines put me through. I feel like a number of my most-frequented, so-called "classic" carriers have totally turned their backs on me, the customer.

Last month, I needed to fly from Denver to New York on two back-to-back weekends. Rather than be penalized with hiked up rates for purchasing tickets at the last minute, I decide to cash in some "free" tickets. The two experiences I had illustrate the drastic difference between a larger carrier and one of the “low-cost” carriers.

Flight on May 1, 2009 via United Airlines #558
For my first trip, I decided to use 25,000 United Mileage Plus points to redeem a roundtrip ticket from Denver International Airport to New York LaGuardia Airport. When reviewing my flight options against jetBlue schedules, I found that United had many more direct-flight options.

I selected my “Award Travel” option on and clicked “book travel”. Immediately a window popped up asking me if I wanted to enjoy 6 inches of more legroom for $39 each way. I declined. Then another window popped up to inform me that I would be charged $100 because I was booking award travel that would occur in less than 21 days. Why does this matter to United? If I am booking my award travel online, no human labor is incurred on their side right? Infuriated, I accepted the fee only because it was cheaper than purchasing a ticket without using my free points.

When I clicked “accept,” another window popped up informing me that it would cost me an additional $5 for taxes, fees and surcharges!

When I tried to select my seats, the website's cockpit seating map showed that all seats were reserved and it would not permit me to pre-select my seat. That meant I would need to get to the gate earlier so that I could use all my powers and sweet charm to negotiate an aisle seat.

One day before my departure, I received an automated email from United Airlines. It confirmed my itinerary and asked me to check in. I was able to select my seat, an aisle in the very last row. The check-in procedure also permitted me to check my bag. I was surprised to see a window pop up to inform me that one bag would cost me $15 to check. “What a rip off,” I thought, but proceeded to type in my credit card number. What else could I do?

The following morning my check-in at DIA was uneventful. When I got to the gate, I learned that even though I was seated in Row 34A, the last row, my seating group was 4th, the last allowed to board the plane.

Since many other customers did not wish to pay $15 to check their bags, the overheads were over-packed with carry-on luggage. I found it difficult to place my laptop bag in the bin above my seat because someone from another row's luggage was in my spot. Worst yet, by having a seat in the last row of the plane I was privileged to be sitting in front of the bathrooms and adjacent to the flight attendants seated in the rear. I was shocked to overhear a flight attendant radio her superior with news that the water in the bathroom sink was not operational. "This equipment is defective. We should change planes," she explained, yet her superior disagreed and our flight took off for New York. The lack of water was particularly inconvenient as we were in the midst of a swine flu epidemic and folks had been told by President Obama to wash their hands regularly.

During the flight we were treated to soft drinks, water and coffee. “Smartpack” and
“Minimeal” snack collections were offered for a cost of $6 to $12. Wines, beers and cocktails were offered at $6 each. United now accepts credit cards only; no cash.

FLIGHT ON MAY 7, 2009 VIA jetBlue AIRWAYS #558
My experience with jetBlue was much different. The website was easy to navigate and after selecting my desired flights, I was able to select my seats.

I logged onto their website and clicked on “True Blue Program”, which is their frequent flyer reward program. I had accrued enough flight segments to earn a free round trip ticket. After clicking “submit”, the pop up window informed me that I would be charged $5 for taxes, fees and surcharges. Yet, unlike United, there was no penalty for ordering the "free" ticket only nine days in advance.

On the day of departure, I brought my pre-printed boarding pass that I generated online. Its barcode was all that my front desk agent needed along with my identification. I was happy to learn that my first checked bag was free!

When I boarded my flight, there was a noticeable difference in legroom from the United flight which was probably equal to the space that United charges an extra $39 per segment for. Also, jetBlue's equipment was brand-spanking new. Prior to takeoff, the pilot made an announcement informing the passengers that while our plane was one of the newest in jetBlue's fleet, that the onboard Direct TV system, with screens build into the back of every seat in front of each passenger, was not working correctly. After take-off, however, the flight attendants re-booted the system and we all got to enjoy 36 channels of free TV, plus the choice of 4 pay-per-view movies for $5.

About an hour into the flight, we were offered a beverage service, followed by a choice of 6 different complimentary snacks. The snacks were not as elaborate as the ones offered on United, but they were free. The options were: Terra Blues®Chips, Doritos® Munchies Mix, Chocobillys chocolate chunk cookies, All Nuts roasted cashews, Stella D’oro® Breakfast Treats or Stauffers® Animal Crackers. Wines and beers were offered for $5.

The overall attitude of the jetBlue flight crew was much friendlier drinks were served with a smile and the occasional joke.

Summary: United(UA)-vs-jetBlue(JB)

Cost to redeem free ticket UA $105 , JB $5
Cost to check first bag luggage UA $15, JB $0
Cost to check additional luggage UA $15ea, JB $30 or more
Additional legroom UA $39, JB$0
Public movie UA Yes, JB No
36 channels of TV at no cost UA No, JB Yes
Complimentary nonalcoholic drinks UA Yes, JB Yes
Cost for wine/beer UA$6, JB $5
Complimentary snacks UA No, JB Yes

I used to be one of United's most frequent fliers. My Mileage Plus Statement indicates that I have flown over 375,000 miles, yet since the terrible events of September 11th and United's subsequent bankruptcy, this airline has not fully recovered. Unfortunately, the cost is being paid by the once-valued customer. If GM is able to be reinvented as the new GM, I believe that United Airlines should take some notes. -CJD


ClaireWalter said…
Unfortunately, United has had us Coloradans by the proverbial shorthairs with their longtime lock on DIA. The current climate seems to be loosening it a bit, but their propensity add fees onto add-on fees remains undiminished. I have never flown JetBlue because they "cleverly" schedule their DEN-JFK service to miss virtually all international connections. I have become fond of Southwest and fly it whenever possible. And I miss the good old says when Continental hubbed at Stapleton and kept United in check.
Anonymous said…
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Bob Freight said…
I often fly with Jetblue when I am in the States on business and I think they are a great airline.

I have always found the booking system easy to use and staff always friendly.

Bob Freight

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