The truth about airline lies (can you handle it?)

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By Christopher Elliott

The busiest summer for air travel is almost over.

But for many passengers, this flying season was the lyin’ season. Week after week, readers crammed my inbox with accusations that a flight attendant or customer service agent misrepresented the truth when they traveled.

A conversation with passengers and airlines suggests that while some claims are obviously false, others are just half-truths meant to persuade you to book a ticket, feel better about your purchase or avoid a confrontation. And others are actually not lies at all.

Here are the top airline “lies” — and the truth about them:

We know you have a choice in airlines

This claim rolls off the tongue of your flight attendants after every arrival. We should be grateful for every safe landing, of course, but we can do without the spin.

Most of us don’t have a choice in air travel. Four big airlines now control more than 85 percent of all domestic routes, a textbook oligopoly. That’s why the Justice Department is investigating airlines. Because after a string of mergers that, ironically, the department cleared for takeoff, most competition has been squeezed out of the system.

In fairness to passengers, airlines should stop claiming we have a meaningful choice.

It’s a weather delay

Falsely blaming Mother Nature for a flight cancellation is probably the most common passenger complaint.

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Why does it matter? Because if a flight is called off because of thunderstorms or a blizzard, then the airline’s contract lets the company off the hook. In other words, if an airline claims a delay is caused by weather, the carrier can save tens of thousands of dollars in hotel and meal expenses.

There’s another good reason passengers believe airlines lie about weather delays. Often, airlines say the elements caused a flight delay even when conditions on the ground are perfect for flying.

Bob Waltz, who oversees Southwest Airlines’ network operations center, says things aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s the weather where the aircraft is coming in from that matters. But even in a weather situation, there may be other reasons for a delay, like a crew “timing out” because of crew rest requirements, which can leave a planeload of people stranded overnight.

An operations center supervisor is responsible for coding the reason for the delay and reporting it to the Federal Aviation Administration, “and the first reason is the code that sticks,” Waltz says.

In other words, airlines don’t lie about weather delays. They just don’t always tell you everything.

Our rewards are easy to redeem

Flight attendants prowl the aisles of your flight, hawking credit cards and promising that you’ll be flying somewhere for “free” soon. That’s nonsense.

“It’s hard work to redeem your miles,” says Jennifer Coburn, a writer from San Diego. She’s irritated because she obediently collected miles by flying on American Airlines, her preferred carrier, only to have the airline tell her no seats were available on her selected route. “I’m told that I can’t have that seat unless I fork over 50 percent more miles for an anytime seat,” she says. “When can I call back to get a seat for fewer miles? Who knows?”

Actually, airlines do have award seats at regular redemption levels, but they’re scarce. The regular award seats are normally made available when an airline’s reservation system projects the seat will fly empty. A higher-mileage seat, on the other hand, is frequently designated as a revenue seat. Some airlines have more seats than others.

In a recent survey, Air Berlin, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines had the most available seats, while US Airways and Delta Air Lines offered the least. Easy to redeem? Yet another airline half-truth.

Our fares have never been lower

This is a favorite airline fib. Airlines and their supporters are fond of telling passengers how affordable their fares are. And that’s true — from a certain perspective. When adjusted for inflation, average domestic airfares have fallen from $454 in 1995 to $391 last year. So airlines can claim ticket prices have never been lower.

But that’s not the whole truth. Over the years, air carriers have stripped away so much from an airline ticket that it’s all but unrecognizable. The ability to check or even carry a bag, to make a change, or to make a seat assignment — they’re all extra. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

A 1995 airline ticket has almost nothing in common with a 2015 airline ticket. In 2014, U.S. airlines raked in an estimated $5.4 billion in a la carte fees, up $400 million from the previous year. No wonder flying is not cheap or even affordable for many of us.

Of course you’ll make your flight

Of all the distortions, this one is perhaps the most frustrating.

Emily Hughes, a former gate agent for a major American airline, says employees say it all the time when passengers are making a close connection in Atlanta, even when they know it’s untrue. (Related: You’re not so special! The hidden messages of the airline industry.)

“We were told to tell passengers they would make their connection within a 20-minute window,” she says. “But it would be difficult for an experienced traveler to make it across Atlanta’s airport in 20 minutes, let alone a traveling family.” In other words, management knows you’re going to miss your connection, but they insist agents tell you you’re going to make it.

What’s the alternative? Telling the truth. “Agents would lie to avoid getting yelled at by angry passengers,” she says. Her takeaway after four years of working that job? It’s better to tell the truth, because passengers “appreciate” not being lied to.

Maybe it’s time airlines embraced this simple idea — that passengers like having the whole truth. Who knows, it might be good for business.

Do you believe your airline?

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How airlines can tell the truth

Stop playing word games. Claims that we have a “choice” or that fares are lower than ever are easily debunked.

Offer more details. If a delay is coded for weather, but there are other reasons the plane is being held, don’t insult front-line employees and passengers by continuing to claim weather is responsible. Airlines can, and should, offer a mechanism for finding the exact reason for a delay and offering a more nuanced and compassionate response to delayed passengers.

Stop making employees bend facts. Bad airline policies, such as too-short minimum connect times, effectively force employees to tell lies. Airlines shouldn’t put their own people in those difficult situations.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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