By catering to 'elite' fliers, American Airlines misleads others

"The reason seats appeared unavailable two days prior to the flight and then became available on the day of departure is due to the elite seat blocking/reservation process," he explained.

You're "elite" in American's eyes if you qualify for one of the carrier's top frequent-flier categories, such as Executive Platinum or Gold. That'll get you various perks, such as ticket upgrades and priority check-in.

"American saves seats for our valued elite customers, who typically have a shorter booking window than other customers," Faulkner said. "When those seats go unfilled by elite customers, they become available for selection by any customer during the check-in window."

What about that one seat that had magically transformed from a premium seat to a regular seat? Faulkner attributed that to complex algorithms that do that kind of thing.

Needless to say, this is a pretty hinky way of doing business. The system does seem designed to spook you into spending money for unnecessary upgrades.

Moreover, American could certainly do a better job of disclosing that the number of seats offered at any given moment may not actually reflect the true number of seats available.

I get that a business wants to reward its most loyal customers, its "elites." But that shouldn't entail deceiving everyone else.

And about that new fare structure: American might want to rethink how it's now offering three tiers of coach tickets.

Travelers can buy a bare-bones ticket and still face the $150 change fee and a $25 baggage fee each way. Or they can pony up an extra $68 to avoid the change fee and check a bag round-trip without an additional charge free.

For an extra $88 instead of $68, travelers can get both those perks, plus some airline miles, plus some booze on the flight.

Figure it like this: If you're checking a bag on both legs of a round trip, you're already facing $50 in fees. What's an additional $18 or $38 for the peace of mind of knowing you won't get slapped with a $150 fee if you have to change a booking?

Or so American seems to be hoping you'll think.

What they're really doing is threatening passengers with an unconscionably large penalty for reservation changes, even though the airline, like most airlines, routinely overbooks flights so it won't be inconvenienced by such things.

And to alleviate that threat, they're offering the opportunity to pay up to $38 more per ticket. If Tony Soprano did this, we'd call it a protection racket.

Not a very elite way to behave at all.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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