Each carrier makes its own rules regarding who gets boarding priority when a flight is oversold or over capacity because of a change in aircraft. After looking for volunteers to give up their seats, some domestic carriers bump those who checked in last; others start with passengers in the lowest fare class. All of them give priority to people in special circumstances: those whose trips would be severely delayed, travelers with disabilities, unaccompanied minors, and (naturally) people in premier cabins or with elite loyalty-club status.
Remember the great Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010 that spewed ash across European airspace, stranding millions of travelers throughout the continent—and beyond? Iceland may be giving us a repeat performance, this time care of the Bárðarbunga volcano (that's Bardarbunga to English speakers), which has been increasing its seismic activity over the last week.
A few days ago, the agency that monitors the volcano raised the threat level to the aviation industry to ”orange,” the second-highest rating, putting airlines around the world on alert for possible flight disruptions due to ash clouds. Though it’s still unclear if the volcano will actually erupt, travelers planning to fly to or through northern Europe in the coming weeks should be prepared. Here’s what you need to know:
If a carrier issues you a ticket for a flight operated by a different airline, that’s the result of a code-share agreement. This happens frequently between international alliance partners (SkyTeam; Oneworld; Star Alliance), but is not restricted to them. Be advised: not all code-share flights are equal in the eyes of your frequent-flier program; some may not count toward elite-qualifying miles or segments.
There’s a reason we use the term advisor to describe the members of our annual A-List, the top travel specialists in the business. These experts offer much more than booking services. First and foremost, says Wendy Perrin, TripAdvisor’s Travel Advocate and founder of WendyPerrin.com, they can help you decide whereto go by walking you through the pros and cons of destinations based on the varying interests (and ages) of the people in your group. Not only that, they’ll deliver insider insights and access. They can tell you how to avoid the crowds at major sights and where the locals eat. They can even pair you with designers and architects who moonlight as walking-tour guides, get a local artist to open his studio to you, and direct you to hidden corners of a city. And they also, crucially, know how to put together a seamless itinerary. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I (travel editor that I am) foolishly tried arranging my own flights in Africa before a safari. After consulting with an advisor late in the game, I learned I was about to book with an airline that was notorious for last-minute, safari-ruining cancellations. Lesson learned.
The news coming out of West Africa this week as been alarming—to say the least. The latest outbreak of Ebola, which started in Guinea earlier this year, has now spread to Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. (There’s even been a suspected Ebola death in Saudi Arabia.) To date, nearly 1,000 people have died of Ebola—a number that will surely increase in the coming weeks as public-health officials struggle to contain the virus. The crisis is such that the World Health Organization has now declared the outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern."
Sort of good news for Israel: the FAA has lifted its 36-hour ban on flights into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and the European Aviation Safety Agency, which had previously issued a recommendation for carriers to avoid the area, is now only cautioning national aviation authorities to “base their decisions [on whether to allow carriers to fly there]…on thorough risk assessments.”
All the major U.S. carriers have cancelled today's scheduled arrivals into Tel Aviv, though their arrivals for tomorrow are still set to depart. Lufthansa, however, is suspending flights through today and tomorrow—a prohibition that applies to Lufthansa, Germanwings, Austrian Airlines, Swiss, and Brussels Airlines. The carrier issued the following statement: “Lufthansa acknowledges the considerable efforts made by Israel to provide the best possible protection for Ben Gurion Airport with the ‘Iron Dome’ shield. As soon as this protection can be verifiably guaranteed, we will resume flight operations.”
After news of a rocket attack near Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, the FAA is prohibiting all U.S. airlines from flying into or out of the country's main international airport for 24 hours. The Earlier today, Delta diverted its once-daily flight between New York JFK and Tel Aviv to Paris instead. US Airways, meanwhile, canceled its Philadelphia to Ben Gurion service before the plane departed. United Airlines canceled both of its Newark-Tel Aviv flights for Tuesday. The U.S. Department of State has also issued a new Travel Warning for Israel, cautioning U.S. citizens to consider deferring non-essential travel to the country.
This comes less than a week after a missile shot down Malaysia Airways flight 17 over the Ukraine, killing all 290 passengers and crewmembers aboard. Questions remain as to whether the airspace where the plane was flying should have been subject to restrictions given the growing ground conflict below. American carriers are obviously now approaching the conflict in Israel with an abundance of caution. This will be appreciated by many passengers, but could be devastating for Israel’s air connectivity.
UPDATE 7/23, 12:50 PM: In a new release, the FAA is extending its ban over Tel Aviv-bound flights for at least another 24 hours. Some airlines, such as British Airways and El Al, are continuing their normal operations. In a similar move, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceana, sister cruise lines, are modifying itineraries to avoid stops in Haifa, Israel's northern port town.
Breaking, horrifying news coming out of Europe today: a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 came down earlier today en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur while flying through Ukrainian airspace. U.S. intelligence officials, according to the Wall Street Journaland other news outlets, are saying that the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members; three of the passengers were infants. There are no survivors.
Thinking of upgrading your ticket to those extra-legroom seats at the front of the main cabin? That’s exactly what your airline wants you to do. In the past few years, domestic and international carriers alike have been rolling out more of these stepped-up economy seats, even as they cram more people farther back in the cabin. Whether you take the bait will depend on how much you’re willing to spend—and how much you just can’t stand the back of the plane.
The domestic scene.
First consider the quality of the seat. All the major domestic carriers offer four to six more inches of legroom, and all but United throw in the perk of early boarding as well. Wider seats are, alas, a rarity, though a few transcontinental Delta flights come with more recline. The premium economy standout, domestically, is Virgin America. The carrier’s Main Cabin Select seats give you 38 inches of pitch (the distance from one row to the next), as well as a free checked bag, priority check-in and boarding, and complimentary food and drinks. They can come with a hefty price tag, however: up to $399 more for a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. JetBlue’s Even More Space seats also rise above the pack, with 38 inches of seat pitch and expedited security privileges.For any flight where you’re thinking of upgrading, it pays to check the cabin layout and the user reviews on the website Seatguru. Even premium economy fliers can wind up next to an unwieldy bulkhead.
Weighing the price tag.
On domestic flights, the fee for premium economy seats varies widely depending on the length of your trip. For shorter hops, say, from Newark to Chicago, it can add as little as $18 to a round-trip American Airlines ticket. For transcontinental flights on major domestic carriers, the seats could put you out anywhere from $130 to $200 round-trip. (On certain Virgin America flights, they may cost more than the base fare itself.) On some carriers, the price also fluctuates depending on how far out you book. Waiting until the last minute sometimes pays off—but not always.
To add to the confusion, you often can’t see how much an upgrade will cost until you actually go through the booking process and get to the seat-selection page. What’s more, since these are not distinct fare classes on domestic carriers, they don’t show up in searches on websites such as Kayak and Expedia. (One exception: Virgin America.) If you want to compare prices, you have to do a lot of legwork.
If you have elite status with a carrier, you can usually get premium economy seats for free or a 50 percent discount. Another way to bring down the cost is through a membership. United Airlines now offers annual Economy Plus packages, which get you unlimited upgrades for a year. The domestic subscription, which starts at $499, can easily pay for itself in just three transcontinental trips. (Global packages start at $699.)
Stretching out abroad.
Offering more than just a few extra inches of seat pitch, premium economy on foreign carriers is an entirely different experience—more akin to a fourth cabin class. For example, British Airways’ World Traveller Plus seats from New York City to London are in a curtained-off section that has a dedicated crew; wider, plusher seats with more legroom; and business-class meals. I found them recently for as little as $468 extra, round-trip. On a similar Virgin Atlantic flight, the roomy, leather Premium Economy seats (which include dedicated check-in and bag-drop services) were $540 more. That’s a significant outlay, but you’d pay more than six times as much to upgrade to business class. It’s also worth noting that for $4,201, the comparable premium-economy ticket on American Airlines would have cost roughly double those of its U.K. competitors.
Other European carriers with excellent premium-economy cabins include Air France (wool blankets; feather pillows) and Turkish Airways (a whopping 48-inch seat pitch). Lufthansa’s new seats—with seven more inches of legroom than in economy—launch in November (available to book now).
The most tempting time to splurge, of course, is on long-haul flights to Asia and beyond, which is why airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand, and Qantas have lavished so much attention (and money) on these seats. It shows. Air New Zealand’s extra-wide, podlike Spaceseats put many business-class cabins to shame. They can cost up to $2,000 more than an economy ticket from Los Angeles to Auckland. But those 13 hours in flight will feel pretty darn good.
7.5% Increase in the number of Virgin Atlantic passengers flying Premium Economy from 2012 to 2013.
$721: Average price difference between economy and premium economy tickets for a round-trip Cathay Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, booked at least three months in advance.