Hosed by fate sharing

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Yesterday Lisa and I flew Alaska/Horizon from Kelowna (YLW) to San Francisco (SFO) via Seattle-Tacoma (SEA). The flight to Seattle went fine but after clearing customs and getting to our gate we discovered that our flight to SFO was 80 minutes late. No problem: there's a flight to San Jose (SJC) that was scheduled to leave an hour ago but is delayed and is leaving at the same time as our scheduled flight, and SJC is actually more convenient for us.

But when we asked to be transferred, the first question we were asked was if we'd checked luggage. When informed that we had, we were told that they couldn't transfer us because they couldn't transfer the bags and so we couldn't change flights. What's going on here, of course, is positive bag-matching. The idea here is that people prefer not to explode and so if your bags are on the same plane as you are you're less likely to put a bomb in your bags.1.

We tried again at the customer service counter and got a similar response, complete with the explanation that they didn't have enough manpower to move people's bags. Now, realize that it's not like our bag was on the plane: our plane was still on the ground in Sacramento.2 Rather, it was in some holding room or on a conveyor belt or something. To add insult to injury, we were told we could volunteer to give up our seats, in which case they would naturally transfer our bags to the new flight. Thanks, Alaska!

1. Of course, this change was a response to 9/11, an event in which the terrorists didn't seem at all concerned about not exploding. However, that's a distinction that seems to be lost on pretty much all airport and security personnel.
2. This is something I've never understood about airlines. Most of the time when your flight is late you're told that the problem is that the plane you're supposed to be flying on is late. Now, I would understand this if you were on the second leg of a multi-leg flight (e.g. SEA-SFO-Palm Springs) and the flight really hasn't come in. But many times there's no discernable connection between the passengers on two flights. Indeed, often it's a plane that just came from where you're going! Is there some reason they can't maintain a few spare planes (remember, SEA is Alaska's hub!) and just put us on one of them instead? I know planes are expensive, but surely annoyed customers are fairly expensive as well. No doubt this is easier if you're like JetBlue and you only fly one class of plane (A320s, though they're also buying a bunch of Embraer 190s), but Alaska has 26 MD-80s and 40 737-400s, which are a pretty close seating match.

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Still better than United - the last time I was coming back from Boston they lied about my scheduled flight being on time until the scheduled departure time, at which point they admitted that it was technically still nowhere near leaving the ground in Washington DC. When I tried to transfer over to another flight they used the same security excuse; ultimately this cost me a full day in travel delays.

When I finally got home, my luggage had been waiting for ~27 hours - the baggage handlers had shipped it on the flight I'd been trying to transfer over to.

The logistical problem is actually more complicated than just juggling the planes... they are also juggling pilots and flight crews... and remember they have specialties (e.g. pilots only being certified for certain plains, duty hours, schedules, regulations about how long their day can be (to prevent overtiredness that might compromise safety) and their own travel issues (more than once I've been on flights that were delayed because the crew didn't make it...). The other thing (besides the potential waste) that I think makes airlines reluctant to juggle planes is that they would eventually need to make compensating adjustments (i.e. there are planes that aren't where they "should" be so someone is going to have to fly some empty or almost-empty repositioning flights).

Whenever I hear or see anyone complaining about airline service, I always ask a simple question: when you choose which airline to fly on, what criteria do you use? The simple fact is that an overwhelming majority of travelers select their airline based pretty much exclusively on price (together with convenience of flight times and endpoints, of course). Discount airlines that offer less service for less money are flourishing, while "full-service" airlines that offer more service for more money are seeing their market share erode dramatically.

You may well be the exception, Eric--one of the few people that would pay an extra $50 or $100 for a few extra perks (like more on-time departures, or better luggage transfer service in the event of a delay). But I'm afraid there just aren't enough of you to make a large-scale business like a nationwide airline viable. Instead, all the major airlines are frantically trying to cut costs, so that they can cut fares, and thus attract price-conscious customers. And that's why "they can't maintain a few spare planes".

I'm not sure what you mean by "less services for less money". I fly quite a bit, mainly on United and JetBlue, and it's arguable that JetBlue offers MORE services (e.g., the in seat video). The main difference that infrequent travellers will notice is that JetBlue doesn't serve meals, but then United doesn't on many flights either and the JetBlue snacks are fairly good. It's true that United is better if you're a real frequent traveller and want perks (e.g., the extended legroom in Economy Plus) but then the generic JetBlue seats are bigger. JetBlue, of course, is a lot cheaper.

That said, it's worth noting that better luggage transfer is something the airlines could offer retail. I would have gladly paid $50 on the spot for that.

The last time I flew United from BWI to SFO, the plane took off, but the pilot got on the speaker and said that there was a problem with the flaps, so we would have to go back. We deplaned back into the gate, waited half an hour, and then they put us on another plane that was waiting. I had no idea that United kept "hot spares" ready like that. I guess that's why their costs are higher.

No luggage problems at all.

So, are the discount airlines any worse at on-time departures and keeping your luggage with you? My experience has been that Southwest gives me a more generally pleasant flying experience than any of the older, more-expensive airlines. I'm not sure what advantage I'm supposed to get from flying American or Delta over Southwest anymore, other than getting an assigned seat.


Of course, this change was a response to 9/11, an event in which the terrorists didn't seem at all concerned about not exploding. However, that's a distinction that seems to be lost on pretty much all airport and security personnel.

Actually, that's not true. It may be true that they're stricter (and more vocal) about it now, at least publicly (but quietly, of course, note Chris's comments about how his bags did get sent in another plane). But I encountered the "passengers must board the plane their bags were checked on or we'll pull the bags" as long ago as 1989.

It's only been a federal requirement since 9/11.

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