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Flying With Kafka

Franz Kafka, frequent flyer (Pe3k/Shutterstock [1])

I finally made it home to Baton Rouge this afternoon. Before I approve the day’s comments, and write about Jeff Flake, I’ve got to get something off my chest. I genuinely do not understand how the airline industry works, and I am hoping one of you can tell me.

Earlier this year, I booked a round-trip flight from Baton Rouge to Paris, to coincide with the publication of my book in France. Some time later, I accepted an invitation to speak at John Brown University in Arkansas around the same time. I would be flying out of Fayetteville on the same day I was planning to leave for Paris.

The BR-Paris flight took me from BTR to DFW, then on to CDG. As it turned out, the BTR-Fayetteville flight was also routed through DFW. Hey, I thought, why don’t I just stay at DFW when I fly in from Fayetteville, chill there for seven hours, then catch my flight to Paris? Makes more sense than flying to Baton Rouge, waiting two hours, then flying back to DFW to catch the Paris flight.

Yes, it made more sense … but that’s not how the airlines work. American Airlines told me that if I didn’t catch the Baton Rouge flight, I wouldn’t be able to pick up the Paris flight. The entire itinerary would be cancelled.

“But that’s really inconvenient to me,” I said. “Besides you can sell the seat on the Baton Rouge to DFW flight that I won’t be using.”

Doesn’t matter, the airline said. That’s our policy.

“So I have to do all that extra flying because your formula requires it?” I said.


So I did. And it was stupid.

Which brings us to last night. This summer, I booked a November 9 round trip from Baton Rouge to Houston (IAH) on United, to speak at a conference there on November 10, returning that evening. I recently agreed to fly to Atlanta to speak there on November 9. Last night I made the flight reservation, and saw that it was much more expensive and difficult to fly from BTR-ATL on November 9, then from ATL-BTR on November 10, especially given that I would have to turn around and fly to IAH the same day.

Oh look! Expedia has a much cheaper and easier direct flight from ATL to IAH on November 10, at 3pm! I booked that last night. I like to use Expedia because it has a 24-hour cancellation policy. Surely, I thought, United Airlines has a more sensible policy than American.

Nope. Long story short: United told me today that if I didn’t take the BTR-IAH flight, my entire itinerary would be cancelled. I wouldn’t be able to take my Saturday flight home from Houston.

I protested, but it did no good. Policy is policy. And if I tried to change the flight in any way, it would cost me an additional $200.

I cancelled the ATL reservation at no cost (thanks, Expedia), and rebooked it. The cheapest flight available out of ATL on November 10 was $120 more than the ATL-IAH direct flight, and instead of leaving at 3pm, I now have to leave now at 7:30am. Here’s the kicker: I’m flying on United out of Atlanta, which means I fly ATL to IAH that morning, then connect to BTR … where I cool my heels for five or six hours, then fly back to Houston.

I could stay in Houston that morning, but that would mean missing the BTR-IAH flight, and forfeiting my return on Saturday. But you knew that.


What sense does any of this make? Not only do I have to do a lot more sitting on airplanes, but in both cases, the airlines could have sold those unused segments and made more money.

Why do things work like this? Man, I hate air travel.


39 Comments (Open | Close)

39 Comments To "Flying With Kafka"

#1 Comment By ABM On October 24, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

Every business is built around something. Some business choose to build around their customer or their product or brand.

Airlines choose instead to build around policy, procedure and bureaucracy. Building around these things means greater efficiency and predictably for them but not necessarily a good experience for us.

[NFR: What’s weird in both cases is that I was offering to let them have my seats back on flights I didn’t want to use, at no extra cost to them. I didn’t ask for a refund. It was worth it for the convenience. But noooo… — RD]

#2 Comment By Greg in PDX On October 24, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

I worked for the airlines/travel agencies for 30 years and it began going this way after deregulation. There is zero incentive for an airline to let you board at your intermediate stop, because that leg that you don’t want from say BTR-IAH is basically worthless on its own. The number of people that would want a one way ticket at the last minute on the route is virtually nil. So it is a win-win for them. If you forfeit the entire ticket, you get no refund, and there IS a chance that a last minute business traveler would want the entire round trip routing at a very high price. Or it would give them an empty seat to use for a cancellation or oversell on another flight. Or you can change the ticket and they collect the $200 minimum change fee. I can guarantee that your convenience is of absolutely no interest to them. This is the bad side of deregulation. The good side is that ticket prices are actually at historical lows, no matter what public perception is. The first time I flew round trip from Salt Lake to Boston back in 1982 there was one price: $800 rt, no matter what airline you took. It didn’t matter because the government set the rates. Those same tickets now run less than half that. Airline pricing, rules, regulations and laws are arcane and are all in favor of the airlines. Most of the perks we took for granted 30-40 years ago we got because airlines could only compete on service, not on price. They have never been required to provide 90% of the services that the general public thinks they are entitled to. Plus up until the 80’s only the very well-to-do or business travelers flew, so of course, the service was much better. Now think of an airplane as a flying subway train, and you will understand why they do the things they do.

#3 Comment By Steve On October 24, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

Moral of the story is, only book one-ways. Round trip saves nothing these days. If you had done that then you could have just discarded the BTR->IAH flight.

#4 Comment By Norm On October 24, 2017 @ 7:35 pm

Where are you speaking in ATL? I’d love to hear you.

[NFR: [2] — and look, Ken Myers will be there the week later. — RD]

#5 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 24, 2017 @ 7:35 pm

A big reason is to discourage so-called “hidden city ticketing”.


#6 Comment By russ On October 24, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

Probably the software they use, which makes them way more efficient than they would be otherwise, just doesn’t support such a scenario.

I would say that the software likely makes it impossible to sell an already-booked seat, but we all know that’s not the case.

Anyway, maybe the policy is based on the design of the software. It’s probably not worth it to their bottom line to add that level of complexity. at least, not until a competitor figures it out. Then they’ll make it happen real fast.

#7 Comment By Kevin on the Left On October 24, 2017 @ 7:42 pm


#8 Comment By Alison Fairfield On October 24, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

This post makes my head hurt. Let’s go back to tackling the collapse of Western culture instead.

#9 Comment By charles cosimano On October 24, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

One of the benefits of being averse to travel is I never have to deal with airlines. I always tell people, “If you want me there, you supply the charter.”

#10 Comment By Sam M On October 24, 2017 @ 7:55 pm


It’s all this 22-year-old kid’s fault. No joke!


#11 Comment By Ryan Booth On October 24, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

It’s not stupid. It’s very simple, actually.

Say Airline X offers a nonstop flight from Point A to Point B for $100. Airline Y doesn’t have such a flight, but they still want your business, so they offer a flight from Point A to Point C, which connects to Point B. And they discount the ticket to $85, because they know that most people would rather Airline X’s nonstop flight.

But maybe you just want to fly from Point A to Point C? It should be less than $85, no? Since you can fly A-C-B for $85. Of course not, because other airlines don’t fly from Point A to Point C nonstop, so they charge a competitive $150.

It all makes sense if you realize that flights are priced based on supply and demand.

[NFR: What I don’t understand is why I can’t agree to surrender a leg of the flight without a refund. — RD]

#12 Comment By Ryan Booth On October 24, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

By the way, Expedia isn’t doing anything special in giving you 24 hours to cancel your flight. That’s required of all airlines by the FAA.

[NFR: Oh man! You’re destroying my illusions! — RD]

#13 Comment By thomas tucker On October 24, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

It happened to me going on a flight from my town to Seattle, and then Seattle to my final destination. When it became apparent that my first flight was likely to be cancelled due to weather, I asked the airline if I could just drive to Seattle and pick up my flight from Seattle to my destination. Oh no. Not possible. My flight from Seattle would be cancelled if I didn’t take the first flight. Ridiculous. Hidden city ticketing isn’t even operative in this case.

#14 Comment By James C On October 24, 2017 @ 8:06 pm

Funny. In Europe, the no-frills carriers Ryanair and EasyJet don’t do ‘roundtrip flights’ but treat such flights as two one-ways, even when booked together.

Thus it’s no problem at all. A couple of times I’ve just not shown up for the outbound flight for whatever reason (no big deal when the ticket cost £10!) but still took the return flight I originally booked.

Why can’t the the so-called legacy carriers sell all flights as one-ways?

#15 Comment By Tmatt On October 24, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

Two words: The Fall.

As in Eden.

#16 Comment By entirelyuseless On October 24, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

Several people have explained it. It is to allow discounted pricing through a hub. If they allowed you to cancel the leg without a refund, people would be able to buy a ticket like that with the plan of cancelling a leg, for cheaper than they would have paid if they had simply bought a ticket straight to the hub. And the long term effect would be that you would always pay more for two segment flights, instead of sometimes paying less.

#17 Comment By thelawyerguy On October 24, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

I no longer even pretend to be an economic conservative; that’s what the GOP has done to me. Re-regulate the whole thing.

#18 Comment By Greg in PDX On October 24, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

[NFR: What I don’t understand is why I can’t agree to surrender a leg of the flight without a refund. — RD]

Because pricing is not based on segments, it is based on point to point. If a one way ticket from BTR to LAX is $100 with a change in Phoenix, but a one way ticket from BTR to Phoenix is $200, they don’t want you simply buying a BTR-LAX ticket and getting off in Phoenix, thus saving yourself $100. Before modern computers it was commonly done. Now computers don’t allow it. I used to teach ticketing classes for new employees. These classes went for several days…..

#19 Comment By Walter Sobchak On October 24, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

“Moral of the story is, only book one-ways. Round trip saves nothing these days. If you had done that then you could have just discarded the BTR->IAH flight.”

Well, It depends. One problem is that you cannot check a bag, through. Which is more likely to be a problem on an international trip where you waqnt to carry more than a carry-on bag’s worth of stuff.

Incidentally, almost none of the problems are encountered on Southwest. They do not have rebooking fees, and if you cannot use a ticket, and you notify them of the non-use before flight time, they will credit the fare to a future purchase. Whenever I can fly on Southwest, I use it.

#20 Comment By Laura On October 24, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

Let me just add. Watch out for the United app. I got a new phone and was going to download the app; but it said that the app wanted access to all the files on my phone including camera and videos, etc. Excuse me? Why does United need access to stuff on my phone?

Careful of that app.

#21 Comment By Claude Robichaux On October 24, 2017 @ 9:34 pm

I was actually able to skip the first leg of a two-part trip once. A tropical storm was forecast to make landfall near my south Texas point of departure at the appointed time thereof. I rented a car and drove to IAH, where I was allowed to board the plane and complete my journey. I had to spend the entire drive on the phone with the airline though.

#22 Comment By jackass On October 24, 2017 @ 9:45 pm

Welcome to deregulation and near-monopoly. Let me also add the devil’s bargain we have, going with the cheapest choice.
Airlines have always been a funny business. The joke was always “we lose money on each trip, but we make up for it on volume”. A powerful airline can control the bulk of gates at a given airport. I’m not sure how this came to pass, but it did. Part of it is I think the enormous amount of land an airport requires, plus nimbyism of the local community. This is not just an American trend. It took 25 years for a fifth terminal to get built at Heathrow, and a third runway which everyone agrees is necessary has been in the discussion stage since 2001. Flying out of Chicago? Take United from O’hare, or Southwest from Midway, or Grayhound from downtown.

#23 Comment By MikeS On October 24, 2017 @ 9:52 pm

This is why, if the trip is less than 400 miles, I will drive.

#24 Comment By pepi On October 24, 2017 @ 9:55 pm

If you don’t check baggage, you can look up flights on google flights or expedia or whatever site you want, then go to the airline websites and book each leg of the flight directly. You get the lowest price and you control every leg. Each leg has it’s own boarding pass but with online check-in, that isn’t really a problem. I’ve done this a lot and have not had it ever wind up being more expensive.

As for the $200 change fee, if you book legs individually, then you can do what I did. The agent says “That will be $30 plus the $200 change fee.” I say “That’s ok. Just leave it as it is and I’ll go online and book the $85 ticket for the flight I need.” Agent says “Hold a moment and let me see if I can get those fees waived for you. I was able to get the waived! That will be $30.”

#25 Comment By catbird On October 24, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

Google says only four hours driving from Baton Rouge to Houston–I don’t know the roads, but I would never fly under those circumstances.

#26 Comment By catbird On October 24, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

Drive yourself and have them pay you mileage.

#27 Comment By Jay On October 25, 2017 @ 6:12 am

Why can’t the the so-called legacy carriers sell all flights as one-ways?

They can, and do. You can buy any flight as a collection of one-ways but will almost certainly pay more, due to the pricing optimizations that are made in the hub-and-spoke model.

The reason that the Ryanairs and EasyJets of the world can do this is that all their flights are point-to-point, so they accrue no advantage by bundling their flights. There are American airlines with a point to point model (i.e., Southwest) and round trip tickets on these airlines are effectively two one-ways.

#28 Comment By Jay On October 25, 2017 @ 6:18 am

[NFR: What I don’t understand is why I can’t agree to surrender a leg of the flight without a refund. — RD]

I thought Ryan Booth had explained this clearly right above your comment. It’s because you could have been using this as a trick to weasel out of purchasing a more expensive ticket for the flights you actually wanted to take all along.

#29 Comment By Uncle Billy On October 25, 2017 @ 7:30 am

If you purchase a coach ticket the airlines must punish you for the crime of not purchasing a first class ticket. They deny this but the airlines find a hundred little ways to punish you. Their attitude is that economics and competition forced them to sell you a cheap ticket, so you will pay in other ways.

I know this sounds crazy but I think it is true.

#30 Comment By Betsy On October 25, 2017 @ 8:05 am

This is our fourth year of international full time travel. It’s stuff like this that leads us to investigate surface travel first. Steve, above, is right when he suggests booking one-way segments. With a third party, such as Expedia, you have less leverage after the 24-hour cancellation window expires. Book directly with the airline. Status doesn’t count for much these days, so we’ve stopped chasing it. Go cheap, but don’t be infatuated with the budget carriers, either. They are an entirely different ring of hell. Overall, it’s best to accept what is, and with airlines, whatever the situation will mostly suck.

#31 Comment By G double On October 25, 2017 @ 9:36 am

I’m a former airline employee (reservation call center of a major European airline), so I know first hand about this. Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about traditional airlines and not low cost (aka point to point airline).
If an airline has a profitable line from A to B, it will charge more than A to B via C, in order to cater for high value passengers (like business executives) who value their time more than their money. However there are people who need to travel from A to C or C to B, but not enough to make the flight profitable. By adding price sensitive passengers who value their money more than their time (and don’t mind a connection), the airline makes those flights profitable, and offers the A to B via C route at a lower price than A to B. Otherwise the service A-C and C-B wouldn’t be there.
In order to discourage passengers to miss flights (and disrupt the schedule, as there might need aircraft and crew schedule changes), the airline punishes people who don’t stick to the rules.
Same if you buy a return trip and you don’t use the way out: your flight will be cancelled without refund (in other words, no show is not permitted). This is even more true for international flights: national airline from country A will offer a very good price to fly to country B, and national airline from country B will offer a very good price to fly to country A. If passengers consistently choose for the better price, airline A will fly with full aircrafts from A to B and fly below capacity from B to A (they need to go back to the hub, they are not a point to point airline). The same will happen to airline B in the other way around. In short, the return flight would not be profitable. To prevent this, airlines enforce the no show rule: you don’t take your flights in the right order, we cancel your entire journey with no refund.
Expedia is a travel agent. Usually travel agents do not issue tickets immediately so they are able to offer name changes or cancellations within a certain time frame. By the way, if you are based in the EU, the airline MUST cancel ON REQUEST any reservation (even if the tickets have been issued) within 24 hours from purchase (it’s a consumer protection law) and release the charges on the credit card. So it’s not really a refund, simply that the transaction is stopped to go through. I don’t know if you have a similar policy in the USA.
I hope that it’s now clear. I know that it feels unfair but it’s the only way for airlines to offer cheap affordable flights.
By the way, I take this opportunity to congratulate you for your articles (I am slowly getting back to church after years of MTD and indifference) and you have helped me to understand a lot of things. Thanks a lot. If you want I can translate a couple of recipes of the French cookbook for your personal use only. I’m not a professional translator, just somebody who happens to know French and English, but I guess that I can help you.

#32 Comment By WhollyRoamin On October 25, 2017 @ 9:59 am

Sam M: 22 years old is not a kid.

He is a grown man.

#33 Comment By ABM On October 25, 2017 @ 11:33 am

[NFR: What’s weird in both cases is that I was offering to let them have my seats back on flights I didn’t want to use, at no extra cost to them. I didn’t ask for a refund. It was worth it for the convenience. But noooo… — RD]

Exactly, they don’t think, they don’t consider convenience or the customer, they just follow the process. That is the way that airlines, by and large, run their businesses.

I have many such experiences with airlines where common sense or human decency might have been good guides for their action, but the 3 Ps (process, procedure and policy) are almighty.

#34 Comment By JonF On October 25, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

Re: You can buy any flight as a collection of one-ways but will almost certainly pay more, due to the pricing optimizations that are made in the hub-and-spoke model.

Is there even a discount for round trip ticketing these days? Some years back when you made flight reservations there was a price listed for the entire itinerary up front when you chose your outgoing flight and then you could choose your return flights without any difference in price. I haven’t see that for a while. Outgoing and return flights are always priced separately. As a result I pretty much just book two one way flights now. To be sure, I generally fly Southwest as they are the major airline out of BWI, with direct flights to many locations, reasonable prices and none of the nickel-and-dime nonsense about checking luggage. Overall their policies are more lenient. Last June due to a household emergency I had to cancel a trip to Chicago at the last minute (the flight should already have been in the air but had been delayed) and they gave me credits, which I could use over the next year, for the amounts of my canceled reservations (and did on my recent vacation in the southwestern states).

#35 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 25, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

Hopefully this will get the kind of attention your critique of AT&T got when you first moved to St. Francisville. That’s why we like having a high-profile blogger with a large following advocating for the rest of us. Not that the individuals you reach on the phone give you any breaks, but some more discerning soul higher up might.

This isn’t specific to airlines. When you dial a large corporate entity, you are not speaking to The Corporate Person, you are speaking to an individual corpuscle. In real life, off duty they are a human being, but on duty, they are a corporate corpuscle.

Two things may happen:

1) The individual responds with what they believe to be company policy, which may or may not be the actual policy, because nobody can take time to read the entire rule book.

2) The individual has a very narrow set of authorized responses, and even though they may recognize the logic of what you are saying, even though a corporate higher-up with discretion might agree with you and approve the change, this corpuscle is doing exactly what they are authorized to do, no more and no less.

Several times when I had a dispute about medical billing, I have looked up the name and address of the corporate CFO, and written directly to them, pointing out that their front line billing staff have neither training nor authorization to consider the facts I am trying to present, and in fact tend to lose letters I send accompanying payment for those amounts not in dispute. Further, the big bad corporate behemoth running my local hospital and billing for my primary care physician has no intermediate level of staff who ARE trained and authorized to deal with questions, factual assertions, and plain arithmetic errors. So, CFO, its in your lap now.

Needless to say, that doesn’t work on a timeframe for an imminent flight to a scheduled engagement.

#36 Comment By Jay On October 25, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

Is there even a discount for round trip ticketing these days? …As a result I pretty much just book two one way flights now. To be sure, I generally fly Southwest as they are the major airline out of BWI

Southwest is a point-to-point carrier. Other airlines still follow the traditional model of pricing in discounts for round trips.

#37 Comment By David C On October 25, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

Does no one here fly Southwest? No change fees. Ever. Among all the other ways in which flying them is the complete opposite of the bad experiences on other airlines.

#38 Comment By JonF On October 26, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

Re: Southwest is a point-to-point carrier.

No so much any more. Southwest does have hubs, like Baltimore.

My comment about the separate pricing of ongoing and return flights applies quite generally however. When I have looked on Travelocity* there’s always one price for outgoing and then that price may well increase depending on what return flight is chosen.

* I do not and will not use Expedia. Back in 2007 they screwed something up quite royally and the response and attitude of their customer disservice people was sufficiently horrible that the Devil will be buying long johns before I ever darken their website again.

#39 Comment By Captain P On October 26, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

This is why I only fly Southwest when possible: no change fees and you can cancel ten minutes before your flight is scheduled to leave.

I’ll fly Delta if I have to, but won’t touch American or United. Too many horrible experiences with them lying to me and giving my seats away.