Flying the US “Big Three” always an adventure compared to other air travel

By BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Delta 747-400 By BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

My mother and I came back from India early last week and then learned my Grandmother who we were visiting had passed away hours after we had left – we were in the air from Chennai to London when she passed though we were not told until a return to the United States, more than 24 hours later.

With this death in mind and the traditions of the Hindu religion my mother had to turn around and fly back to Chennai less than 48 hours after returning stateside (For the record, I personally do not identify as a Hindu and feel the Indian subcontinent was subjected to centuries of British rule thanks to the willingness of Hindus to “choose” the British over competent Muslim rulers – not that I support the current form of Islam either – my views on 21st Century Islam have been well-documented on these pages. I don’t like religious fundamentalism and in South Asia the two religions have a history in recent times of competing with each other to demonstrate who is more radical, evidenced again by today’s terror attack in Punjab) .

Finding a flight was difficult unless my mother and father who would accompany her were willing to take the most direct routing – Miami to Doha to Chennai on Qatar Airlines. But our family has a strict policy NOT to fly state subsidized air carriers from countries that enslave our people, South Asians. That means no Qatar, Kuwait, Gulf Air or Saudia flights and we would only use Etihad or Emirates as a final option. 

What we ended up settling on was flying British Airways from Atlanta to Chennai via London rather than our usual Miami-London-Chennai routing which was unavailable on such short notice. That meant my parents had to get from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach to Atlanta in plenty of time to catch the BA flight onward to London. Fort Lauderdale has far more nonstop Atlanta flights than Miami or West Palm Beach, so that became the choice of a local airport.

My instincts are ALWAYS to fly Southwest if they are on a route competing with one of the other three “Big 4” US carriers (Delta, American and United). The only time I don’t choose Southwest on a route is if JetBlue is flying it or Spirit is so ridiculously cheap it’s worth it. But since Southwest has higher labor costs than the other Big 4 carriers, a bi-product of not using bankruptcy protection as an effective dodge to cancel labor contracts and cut costs the way American, United and Delta did, SWA is almost always more expensive on a route.

In this case Delta was $500 cheaper than Southwest. Delta was so cheap I did not even bother to check Spirit who also flies Fort Lauderdale-Atlanta. Well sometimes you get what you pay for.  Delta’s agents put my parents and their baggage on DIFFERENT Fort Lauderdale-Atlanta flights on Friday, because of a boarding card error at the airport. In fact, my parents were placed on standby for the flight they ended up catching because of the error which was made at the ticket counter in Fort Lauderdale. They did make that flight and now have connected onward via British Airways to London, but this is an illustrative mistake of the types of things I have dealt with in the past when flying Delta or American (or US Airways before they merged with American). Many people have told me United is similar in its service mistakes even though their recent merger with Continental, the one US “legacy” airline that generally got high marks from customers seems to have not improved UA’s reputation.

My family regularly flies British Airways and we rarely if ever have problems. BA is a private carrier, and one whose hub is London Heathrow, the airport with the highest operating costs on the planet. BA often has to push those costs onto the customers meaning they are generally more expensive than the subsidized Middle Eastern carriers they compete with for traffic from North America to South Asia. Also working against British Airways is Heathrow itself – the world’s third busiest airport which only has two runways and constant delays. Yet BA’s service levels rarely if ever drop.

In the US move people via planes rather than trains unlike Europe. I understand, Delta, American and United have to be less service-oriented because they are essentially trains in the sky. I also understand those airlines offer amenities (if you pay) that Southwest doesn’t.  But my parents episode reminded me why even with Southwest consistently being more expensive than other airlines they still fill planes – and if god forbid you have to change your flight or amend your booking, doing it on Southwest is cheaper and more customer friendly than on the other three “big four” carriers.

So unless you have no choice, sometimes it pays to fly Southwest despite the higher costs.

NOTE: For years Delta, American and United were called the “Big Three,” and Continental, US Airways and Northwest called “additional legacy carriers” meaning they carried interstate passengers prior to airline deregulation in 1978. Southwest, Hawaiian and Alaska Air were intrastate carriers before 1978 and the other current US air carriers did not exist in 1978. Following the merger mania of the 2010-2015 time period analysts have begun using the “Big Four” term to refer to the previous big three plus Southwest who is along with Delta, American and United is one of the ten largest airlines in the world following the consolidation of the industry. Thus the conflicting Big Three and Big Four terms in this article.”

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