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DEATH TAKES A BUSINESS TRIP
By Joe Brancatelli
August 2, 2012 -- You surely know Death Take a Holiday, the ethereal 1934 Fredric March flick about death taking corporal form to understand the human condition. It's been remade often, including the 1998 Brad Pitt vehicle called Meet Joe Black.

On the bulletin board by my desk, there's a hilarious cartoon. Captioned Death Decides Not to Take a Holiday, it depicts the Grim Reaper, in black robes and hood and carrying a massive scythe, storming away from a travel agency. Death's thought balloon: "$959 round trip? Outrageous!"

But Death Took a Business Trip this week and it once again reminded me of the one basic truth of American commercial air travel: The legacy airlines' dysfunctional pricing system is the root cause of their long-standing financial woes and their increasingly desperate attempts to merge. It explains why so many business flyers try to fly less and why discretionary travelers often search for holidays that eschew flying altogether.

Last Friday morning, I got a call from a friend. His wife needed to get from New York to Pittsburgh immediately. Her gravely ill sister was in a Pittsburgh hospital and not expected to survive the night. He'd called US Airways and was told there were no seats available on Friday's remaining LaGuardia-Pittsburgh flights. All he could find was a JetBlue Airways flight from Kennedy Airport for about $350 one-way. But the flight didn't reach Pittsburgh until nearly 11:30 p.m. and his wife was concerned that would be too late.

"Let me see what I can do, but this is going to be brutally expensive," I said. "Going one-way at the last minute is the textbook explanation of airline rip-off."

Shows you what I know. When I surfed to USAirways.com, I found a 5:55 p.m. flight that arrived in Pittsburgh about 7:30 p.m. Shockingly, the price was just $181 including taxes and fees. I even scored an aisle seat with no upcharge from US Airways' ridiculously named ChoiceSeats program. As if there is a "choice" coach seat on an 80-seat RJ.

"Why did US Airways tell me on the phone that they were sold out?" my friend asked.

"How do I know?" I admitted. "Maybe it was sold out when you called. Or maybe the agent just missed it."

My friend's wife got to Pittsburgh without incident and, as her husband told me over the weekend, she was with her sister when she died on Friday night. He told me he'd call so that I could help arrange a return flight when his wife wrapped up the family business in their hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania.

"You know the prices are going to be brutal, right?" I said. "Maybe she should just book Amtrak home."

On Monday, my friend called again. His wife was hoping to return nonstop to LaGuardia from Cleveland, the nearest hub airport, around midday on Wednesday. We steeled ourselves for the inevitable price gouge.

United, the incumbent in Cleveland, wanted $603 one-way to fly into LaGuardia. Delta Air Lines, the new power player at LaGuardia, also came in at $603. United wanted even more to fly into Newark, another of its hubs. That hub-to-hub one-way walk-up fare was $653--or an astonishing $1.62 per flight mile.

"Alright," my friend said with a sigh. "Let me see what she wants to do."

A few minutes later, my phone rang again. "Erie has an airport. One of her sisters is flying out of there tomorrow. Anything going Erie-LaGuardia?"

"Not nonstop," I replied. "Do you want to put her on connecting flights home?"

"Just check," he replied. "Since she's going to the Erie airport anyway..."

Here's where it gets weird--even by the standards of legacy airlines.

United offered an Erie-Cleveland-LaGuardia connection for $408 one-way. In other words, almost $200 cheaper than the nonstop from Cleveland. Delta, of course, was matching United's lunacy via its Detroit hub.

And that brings us to the through-the-looking-glass world of USAirways.com. It showed a panoply of connections via US Airways' Philadelphia hub. The Dash-8 to Philadelphia and Canadair to LaGuardia itineraries in midday were all $558 one-way for an unrestricted ticket.

But, wait, it gets better. USAirways.com was also serving up a restricted fare on the Erie-Philadelphia-LaGuardia connections: $1,162 one-way. You read that right: US Airways' nonrefundable, restricted fare was more than twice as much as its unrestricted, totally refundable price.

Even I'd never seen that bit of airline mania. Then it got even more bizarre. As I scrolled down the list of connections, US Airways suggested an 8:30 p.m. departure from Erie with a 10:50 p.m. connection departing Philadelphia. It arrived at LaGuardia at 11:39 p.m.

The price: $140.60 one-way including taxes and fees. And, once again, since the planes were almost empty, there were plenty of aisle seats to reserve without resorting to the ChoiceSeats rip-off.

"That's absurd," my friend said.

I booked it for his wife and felt righteous.

But no good deed goes unpunished when Death Takes a Business Trip. Yesterday was a wonky weather day in the East. At 6:18 p.m., I got a text alert from US Airways saying that the 8:35 p.m. departure from Erie was delayed until 9:20 p.m. That, of course, meant my friend would never make her Philadelphia connecting flight. Less than an hour later, another text arrived: The Erie flight was delayed again, this time until 10:30 p.m.

So I called my friend to explain her options. But US Airways had already called her and she said the agent insisted that she appear at Erie Airport as scheduled for the 8:35 p.m. departure.

"I don't mind the wait," she said. "They won't cancel the flight, will they?"

"Well," I said, mustering the conventional wisdom, "during irregular operations like this, the airlines will push out flights as soon as they can turn them. It's possible that the flight will leave sooner than 10:30. And I'm pretty sure it'll go because it's the last scheduled flight of the night and they'll want to get the plane back to the base in Philadelphia."

Shows you what I know. Seconds after I hung up, another message arrived from US Airways. The Erie flight was now officially cancelled. Apparently US Airways decided not to dispatch the originating flight from Philadelphia to Erie at all because, you know, no reason to fly your customers.

My friend is still in Erie, now scheduled to fly out later today.

So what can you learn from all of this? The $180 walk-up fares, the ridiculously priced nonstops that mysteriously plummet in cost when you add a connecting leg, the double-priced restricted fares and the $140 one-way that gets cancelled because the airline didn't want to bother flying it?

Nothing. There's nothing to learn because the legacy airlines are crazy and you don't learn from crazy. Their pricing and service models are irretrievably broken and it is impossible to explain their policies to normal people.

But the Grim Reaper will be coming for these dysfunctional legacy airlines soon enough. Then they'll be his problem, not ours.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.