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Airlines to Alter Booking Protocol

Airlines to Alter booking protocol
Some to hold seats to minimize hassles

Faced with a frustrating reality that air-travel delay is here to stay, airlines are planning changes in how they operate and refining systems that book customers.

After lessons learned this summer, some say they will now hold back empty seats at peak travel periods, starting at Thanksgiving, to be able to more quickly re-accommodate travelers who miss connections and get stranded.

Several carriers are stretching out schedules, adding minutes to scheduled time between flights. More spare aircraft will be available next summer, airlines say.

New technology at a few airlines will help rebook customers more quickly and less painfully.

The changes will drive costs higher for airlines. But they reflect a new reality: Late flights, stranded travelers, misconnected luggage and angry customers all have a price, too. And congestion in the skies is likely only to get worse.

"I hate that assumption, but what else can you assume?" said US Airways Group Inc. Chief Executive Douglas Parker.

US Airways' plans

Tempe-based US Airways decided in July to extend its operating day by 30 minutes, spreading flights out more and making four more aircraft available as spares.

The airline added one additional plane to its East Coast shuttle operation, flying the same number of flights with more jets so delays don't affect the schedule as much.

US Airways also added workers at its Philadelphia and Charlotte hubs to better handle passenger re-accommodation. The goal is to have agents meet late flights and hand customers new boarding passes, Parker said.

Air travel deteriorated this summer from a combination of severe weather, especially in June, an aging, overtaxed air-traffic-control system and record-high load factors on flights.

When storms broke out, the air-traffic-control system couldn't keep up, and passengers of canceled flights had trouble finding seats since so many tickets had been sold.

"If we hadn't had high load factors, we could have re-accommodated people quickly. If we had high load factors and the operation was OK, we would have been fine," said Daniel Garton, executive vice president of marketing at AMR Corp.'s American Airlines.

"Two out of the three factors we could have withstood. But all three together caused the problems we had."

American has decided to sell fewer seats on key flights in key markets during busy travel periods so more empty seats are available to rebook customers who miss connections because of late or canceled flights.

That will start with Thanksgiving, Garton said.

American has enhanced its planning for diverted flights - planes that can't get to their destination so they divert to an alternative airport to refuel and wait out storms. American's operations center now tries to make sure diverted flights are spread across many airports so backups and logjams don't occur on the ground.

And planners take into account group equipment: Don't send an international flight to a city without U.S. Customs facilities in case passengers need to get off the plane, or don't send a Boeing 757 to a city that may not have a tow bar for a 757 because it handles only small regional jets.

Another problem now factored into flight decisions: Some cities can't service the bathrooms on some types of jets because they don't have the right equipment.

In the past, pilots and flight planners figured waits on the ground would be short, so many servicing issues didn't matter during diver- sions.

Now, said Bob Cordes, American's vice president of operations planning, "we take a less optimistic approach. Things are not always going to happen as you think."

American has decided to add five minutes to seven minutes of ground time between flights to give late flights a better chance to catch up and keep fewer planes sitting as they wait for open gates.

Priority passengers

Along with other changes, American is refining procedures like holding back extra seats during high load-factor periods and revising the priority it gives to people on standby lists waiting to be re-accommodated.

First-class and business-class passengers get top priority, along with unaccompanied minors and disabled travelers.

High-dollar coach passengers and elite-level frequent fliers rank high.

Cheap-ticket passengers get the lowest priority - and American has recently begun showing on its Web site whether certain fares get priority when forced onto the standby list.

Brochures will start showing up in airplanes explaining procedures for "off-schedule operations," and airport terminals will have brochures that include phone numbers for local hotels, Garton said.

Reservation system

American has also improved its reservation system, Garton said, so that the seat held for a customer with no chance of making a connection will be released for other passengers. In the past, once you had a boarding pass, your seat was blocked.

The airline's systems didn't take into account changes like your flight's being diverted to another city, or being delayed so much you had no chance of making a connection.

UAL Corp.'s United Airlines has deployed an automatic rebooking system for customers whose travel gets disrupted. And it has installed kiosks inside secure areas of airport terminals so that customers can get new boarding passes without waiting in line.

Graham Atkinson, United's chief customer officer, says the airline is developing standardized procedures whereby gate agents and other employees can give more-detailed information to customers about the cause of delays. Storms far from a route of travel can affect flights, but when an airline agent announces a weather delay, and it's sunny in the departure city and sunny at the destination, "it's usually interpreted as, You're lying to me,' " Atkinson said. "It's clearly an area where we don't do a good job."

The Wall Street Journal

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