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Transcript

Holiday Air Travel

Delays and Baggage Loss

Sara Goo and Keith Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; 11:00 AM

A storm that swept across much of the eastern half of the United States on Dec. 22 and 23 set off a chain reaction of flight delays that saw thousands of travelers temporarily stranded at airports. Many travelers also saw their baggage go missing for days.

Why did so many things go wrong, and what, if anything, can the government and airlines do to prevent similar problems in the future?


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Washington Post reporters Sara Goo and Keith Alexander to shared your holiday travel stories and discussed how the airlines handled what was one of the biggest holiday travel fiascos in years.

The transcrip follows

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Keith Alexander: Hello Everyone, Keith and Sara here. We're ready to answer your questions so let's roll.

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Washington, D.C.: Security screening didn't seem to be a hassle this year. Did TSA relax standards? I breezed through Reagan National.

Sara Goo: Right before the Christmas travel season kicked off, TSA relaxed one of its more controversial policies--the pat down procedure. They had a lot of complaints from women about screeners touching the breast area and so they now only pat down the "chest perimeter." But in terms of breezing through, usually National is pretty good about managing the lines and getting enough screeners staffed at the checkpoints.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: How can the IAM and AFA blame USAirways for the fiasco THEIR members created? Do they think the traveling public and other hard-working USAirways are as stupid andd brainwashed as THEY? Before the sick calls began, the IAM ramp crews at Philly stopped loading aircraft -- an illegal strike (about 8 P.M. on Dec 23). This is indefensible. The unions set the tone for their members. Direction comes down from the top. USAirways ought to SUE the IAM for breach of contract!

Keith Alexander: Interesting point Phoenix. What is happening at US Airways honestly is very sad. Both sides are being squeezed and whenever everything is over, it is going to be very interesting to see what ends up happening to this airline as a result. Union leaders say they warned US Airways managers days before Christmas that there might be a problem with staffing. In fact, the union said the same thing happened during Thanksgiving and the airline prepared for it. The airline disagrees with that point. So again, a lot of back and forth.

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Kalamazoo, Mich.: We traveled 12/25 a.m. Northwest AirlinesAZO-DTW, DTW-LGA. At DTW we delayed departure less than 20 minutes to accomodate connecting passengers "who otherwise may not get home for the holidays. We hope you agree that waiting for them is a good thing to do." A lot of us looked around at each other and spoke or nodded agreement with NWA's decision. We arrived less than 20 minutes late to LGA and many otherwise disappointed were happier. Hurrah to NWA. Nick

Keith Alexander: Thank you for your comment Nick. It's great to hear some positive stories about the airline industry these days. There are thousands of airline employees out there who are working hard on behalf of their airline and the customer. It's also great to hear that you and your other passengers supported Northwest's decision to hold the plane for those connecting passengers. And the reason your flight did not arrive even later than 20 minutes was because the airlines often pad their arrival times by 20 minutes to offset for delays.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi. We traveled on Wed. Dec 22 from BWI to Dallas/Ft. Worth and on to Tucson, AZ. When we arived in Tucson, our digital video camera was missing from our luggage, although the video camera case was still in the suitcase. American Airlines says they have no liability, since they don't open luggage. I guess TSA is the next bet, although there was no indication that they inspected the luggage. We probably shouldn't have packed the camera, but how much can we carry on? We already carried on a regular digital camera, jewelery, medications - there was no room for more. It seems there is a lot of finger pointing going on - the airlines say it's TSA, TSA wonders why we think they are responsible. I guess we will just have to carry on everything we own if we don't want it to go missing.

Sara Goo: Hi Rockville, you hit on a major ongoing problem between the airlines and the TSA. I would encourage you to file a claim with TSA right away on their web site: www.tsa.gov. Be prepared to wait several weeks, if not months, to hear back from the TSA about whether the agency or the airline will pay your claim. TSA said they just paid out money to thousands of travelers who claim to have something stolen or missing from their luggage just like you. In the future, don't bring anything valuable in your checked bag--you can take two carry-on bags per person. Sorry--unfortunately the traveler suffers while the TSA and airlines sort out who is responsible for such theft/missing valuables.

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Arlington, Va.: I flew out of DCA on the 23rd, right as the weather front was blowing through the city. We were delayed 90 minutes for our departure to Atlanta. When I got there, I found that my connecting flight was delayed 4 hours. Atlanta was jammed with more people than I've ever seen. Still, I count myself lucky that I (and my baggage) made it to my destination that night. Just passing along one person's story.

Sara Goo: Thanks for sharing your story. I had a similar experience flying through O'Hare. (You'd think I'd know better than to fly through the most delayed airport but....it was a good deal!) Anyway, I think you have the right attitude. Traveling around the holidays is stressful and often the weather complicates things. If you have a connecting flight you should just count yourself lucky these days to get both legs of your flight on time! Me--I read a good book.

Keith Alexander: Atlanta is always a very difficult airport to fly through. It's the world's busiest airport for a reason. Congestion and weather are always factors. If there ever was a city that needed an alternate airport, it's Atlanta.

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Houston, Tex.: People are paying ridiculously low prices for airline tickets. Under the circumstances, all I can say is you get what you pay for. What kind of service do people expect from airline employees who are struggling to pay their bills?

Sara Goo: That's a good point. I flew from DCA to Honolulu last fall for an amazing $350 RT. Still, I think passengers expect to be treated with respect and by professional airline employees no matter the company's financial state.

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Alexandria, Va.: I flew United Airlines over Christmas, and (due to weather) missed a connecting flight. Did you know that United's reservations line, baggage line, and customer service line all three do not allow a customer to wait on hold for an agent? In fact, United has an automatic message that says, in essence, "thanks for calling, but all agents are busy. Please try your call later" and hangs up on you.
I called the baggage line for six hours, and got hung up on every time. I never once spoke to a United representative.

Has it become acceptable airline customer service to hang up on callers?

In bet a lot of customer frustration could be solved by an airline just acting like it cared, rather than automating a response that hangs up on a customer, who is only calling because he has a problem.

Keith Alexander: Hello Alexandria. In a previous column, I actually wrote about how difficult it is these days to get a live person on the phone. Remember, United has cut thousands of reservation agents jobs as it restructures in bankruptcy court(now two years and counting). That's part of the reason United, and other airlines, are trying to send more travelers to their individual websites. I'm sure the remaining reservation agents who were working over the holiday were very busy.

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Falls Church, Va.: I had some items stolen from a checked bag when returning to DC last week. Does anyone track these crimes? I was told to go to National and file a form with Delta's office there. I'm not expecting to get my stuff back, but I'm upset and want to make sure that the airline and all the airports I came through know what happened.

Sara Goo: Unfortunately, I don't think so. There have been a few FBI sting operations that have led to arrests of TSA screeners in Miami and some also were arrested in New York. It wouldn't be a bad idea to file a report with the airport police so they can track it and see if there are any patterns to the theft.

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Baltimore, Md.: Philadelphia dominated news coverage of the holiday travel mess, with US Airways mentioned most. I'm just wondering -- how did other airlines at Philadelphia do? Isn't Southwest flying a lot of planes in and out of that airport these days?

Keith Alexander: Great question Baltimore. Actually, because US Airways was down so many baggage handlers on Christmas, it was the main carrier to have such a problem. No other airline reported such disruptions. Remember, it was not a Philalphia airport problem. It was a US Airways problem that happened to occur in Philly.

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Keith Alexander: Many traveles have complained about the TSA's pat down policy and shoe removal policy. Sara, could you talk a little about both?

Sara Goo: Sure, Keith. These issues irk travelers the most. The frustrating part is that the rules constantly change. So just when you think you know the drill--to take off shoes or not, TSA screeners will tell you the rule is now different. Adding to the problem, many travelers say they hear the rules at one airport are different than another. My advice is to remove your shoes before you get to the front of the line, even if you think they won't alarm the machine. This will save you a lot of hassle. TSA's current policy doesn't require you to remove shoes but in effect if you choose not to remove them then you will likely be directed for additional screening, including a pat down. The pat downs for women now call for screeners to pat down the "chest perimeter" and no longer touch women betweeen the breasts.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't want to "give up" my travel secret, but there was a certain pleasure in sitting in Reagan National Terminal A (which took approx 10 minutes to get to, check in to past security) and watching the live news reports from terminals B & C with their 1-2 hour back ups.

Sara Goo: Aha! You must travel an awful lot on Northwest Airlines! Yes, some security checkpoints are better staffed than others (and have more flights than others.)

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Alexandria, Va.: Sara and Keith:
Don't you think it's about time for USAirways to just go under already? Whether you agree with the unions or management, it's obvious they've lost control of their labor force. I think the traveling public is better served if they just shut down already, let United or Delta or whoever pick up the routes and buy the planes. Then people who are trying to plan a vacation three months from now don't have to ask themselves if they should book USAirways or not.

Keith Alexander: Very interesting comment Alexandria. But there are about 30,000 employees and some 11,000 retirees who might argue that US Airways needs to survive. Not to mention, the thousands of smaller towns, specially along the East Coast, that would lose service if US Airways doesn't survive.
But the flip side is that if US Airways does go under, it would give the other airlines more pricing power, ironically enough and that could help the other airlines balance sheets.

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Anonymous - Xmas Traveler: This is probably not related to the storm problems, but we were scheduled to fly to Dallas on Xmas evening. We showed up at BWI with plenty of time to park, but found that ALL the long term lots were closed. They then sent us to an hourly lot which was completely full. Finally, we had to park in the only lot with available spaces - the ESP lot - for $14 a day.

Besides the fact that we had to pay so much more to park there, what really angered us was the fact that it was only the entrances to the other parking lots that were closed. Cars were still leaving and there was obviously room, but they wouldn't open the lots.

Is there someone to complain to about this? Is this common practice on holidays to close parking lots down?

Thanks!

Sara Goo: Oh, that sounds really annoying. I had a parking problem like that at BWI last Thanksgiving and now I never drive there and risk having that problem. You should call BWI and complain. check their web site: www.bwiairport.com

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North Adams, Mass.: The terrible performance of AMTRAK during the recent holiday travel period has been lost in the flurry of airline stories. People were left standing in the cold at stations like Pittsfield, Mass. waiting for the Lake Shore Limited for 7 to 10 hours; and offered no help making alternative arranements. The delays on this particular run are egregious, and happen in good weather and bad.

Shouldn't Amtrak subsidies be based upon on-time performance, rather than giving them money which does the passengers (and taxpayers) little good?

I think it would be better to admit they do not know how to run a railroad than keep throwing money at them. They have received about 30 billion dollars over the last 33 years without any measurable improvement in service.

Quite the opposite.

Sara Goo: Hmm..maybe Amtrak got overlooked as the airlines took the headlines. Anybody else have Amtrak problems? I know of some folks who took Amtrak and had no problems earlier Christmas week.

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Crofton, Md.: Hi

Dare I make a reservation on USAirways for late April? How do I protect myself?

Keith Alexander: Prior to this past Christmas debacle, I would have said, sure, go ahead. But now, I'm not sure. If US Airways survive, it's going to be up to the employees. And they have been through a lot and many of them seem a little fed up. Unless the workers somehow show a sign that they are willing to go along with the airline's transformation plan and that means pay, benefit and job cuts, this carrier is not going to survive.

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Durango, Colo.: Hi,
For a lot of those folks out there that have had problems with items being stolen from their bags, or problems with checked bags in general, they may want to look at a new industry that has sprung up that allows travelers to ship their bags ahead. Most of these services (SportsExpress.com is one example) use major shippers like UPS and FedEx, then add a layer of traveler services like notifications and destination coordination with hotels and the like. The service is great and many times costs less than excess baggage charges. And you can lock your bags!;

Sara Goo: This is a good idea. These services are not available in every area so I would do a little Internet research first. And just warning--it can be pricey. There are also some hotels like the Ritz Carlton that offer luggage shipping services for guests. Anyone out there have an experience doing this?

Also, you can buy these TSA-approved locks for your luggage that can only be opened by TSA security screeners. (And just hope that they aren't the ones who have sticky fingers!) These locks are also mentioned on TSA's web site: www.tsa.gov

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Spotsylvania, Va.: Do you have any predictions on what will happen to US Airways in the next couple of weeks? I have a flight on United to Hawaii using US Airways points in February and have been told by United that they won't be honored if US Airways goes under. Should I schedule a flight on another airline now, or wait and see what happens?

washingtonpost.com: US Airways Mechanics Not Hopeful (Post, Jan. 4)

Keith Alexander: Hello Spots. A US Airways flight in February should be safe. Even if the airline is forced to liquidate, it would not happen that soon. However, a bit of advice for you and other travelers flying on US Airways tickets, make sure you have a ticket in hand. Not just a reservation, but an actual confirmed ticket, receipt, etc. That way, if something should happen, you have proof that you have a confirmed flight and another airline is more likely to honor it.

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TSA Theft: Weeks? Months? Try again. I had two belts (brand new, expensive even for Filene's) stolen from a suitcase between National - Toledo. After the run around, I was informed by TSA that I had to submit a receipt (like I still had it), and that it would 12-24 months turnaround time.

Talk about legalized theft.

Sara Goo: Ugh--sorry. Let it be a cautionary tale.

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Winchester, Va.: What are my chances/options to retain my Miles value, should USAir go under?

Keith Alexander: If US Airways does not emerge from bankruptcy, it's likely that another airline will come in and snatch up US Airways frequent flier database. The reason: a dedicated group of frequent, top-paying business travelers. But while an airline may honor the miles, other privileges such as allowing elite members to use another airline's club or upgrades, might not be as forthcoming.

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Washington, D.C.: Flew out of BWI on Christmas Eve--2 PM. My connecting flight was delayed 3 hours out of Cleveland when I left, but cancelled when I got to Cleveland. Fortunately, Continental had already rebooked me on a flight to Houston and a connection to San Antonio. I made it there a few hours late, but before Christmas and with my bags. Seems to me Continental has fewer problems than most airlines these days and I was treated with courtesy and respect by all of their employees I had the pleasure of meeting.

Sara Goo: I'm glad we've got some passengers who had a pleasant experience.

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Potomac, Md.: You said if USAirways liquidates, many small towns would be without service. Not true. Independence Air (flyi.com) serves many of these samll towns and large ones out of Dulles. I have flown them many times now and continue to be amazed at how superior their product is compared to the competition.

I know they are having tough finance problems but I think if they can weather January (no pun intended) they will survive. Remember that THEY are the reason fares are so low out here.

Sara Goo: Re: Fly i...that is a very big IF

Keith Alexander: Good point Sara. Also remember, Flyi doesn't serve anywhere near the number of communites US Airways serves. Also, if Flyi is forced to cut back the number of flights to avoid bankruptcy, that airline might not be as much of an option.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Sara and Keith,

Watching US Airways go down has been bittersweet for me. They were the airline I always took growing up (I'm from Philly) and loved, but now their service has suffered, I'm sure as a result of staff and pay cuts. I expect they will be gone in a few months-the business is just too competitive!

A question: If you are flying (during the holidays and other times) and things start getting delayed, you have missed a connection, etc., what is the best course of action to help you get to your destination on time and in a decent mood?

Thanks!

Keith Alexander: If you're on a flight that is delayed and you're going to miss a connection, the best thing you should do is whip out your cell phone and call the airline's 800 number and book yourself on the next available flight. If you wait until you arrive at the airport and rush to a ticket counter, it may be too late to get a seat, especially if you're stuck in line behind hundreds of people who are trying to do the same thing.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hello, Sara & Keith -

After traveling through three European airports over the holiday, I have to say I'm a bit concerned about their level of security. As a Washingtonian who travels regularly, I'm used to (what I perceive as) a pretty high level of security. I always wear slip-off shoes that-if not removed-will set of the metal detector at probably any US airport. In Europe, these same shoes set off a metal detector at only one airport. (Although kudos to that airport for having a little dressing room-type cubicle next to the screening area--the security screener was able to pat me down in privacy without the roving eyes of fellow travelers.) These three European airports did not seem to have the same high level of security that I've witnessed at another European airport, Amsterdam Schipol. Can you comment on European commitment to airline security? Are some European countries just not concerned about it?

Sara Goo: We all have our own opinions about what is "good" security and what is "lax" security. Many European countries, like Schipol, have better reputations than those in the United States and many people say it's because even though they work for private companies, they are well trained and they are more career-oriented. It's tough to say one is better or worse than security in the United States. There are a lot of things behind the scenes that passengers do not see that improve airline security such as fortified cockpit doors, air marshals, etc. In other words, what you see is only one sliver of the multilayers of airline security.

Having said that, it is interesting to note that the TSA recently declared that Haiti's airport in Port Au Prince did not meet TSA's security standards and they are notifying US airline passengers of that. I am eager to see if there will be more international airports that don't meet the standard.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hello,
I know other airlines have to accept tickets if US Air goes under, but do you know if they will accept travel vouchers (free tickets given because of a bumped flight, etc)?

Keith Alexander: Good question Falls Church. I do not know the answer off hand, but I will find out and answer you in an upcoming Business Class column. promise!

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Singapore: Hi Sara and Keith,

We currently live in Singapore but regularly travel back to DC on United. We flew back to Singapore on 12/26 out of Dulles where there was the longest security line I have ever seen there at 6 am. They held our United flight over half an hour to accommodate those stuck in the line and then tried to expedite those transferring at O'Hare by asking the rest of us to let them off the plane first. Worked remarkably well. Our delay out of O'Hare made us almost an hour late into Tokyo where they held the ongoing plane for all of us continuing on to Singapore. While we all had only half an hour to go through security again and reboard, United even managed to transfer all our bags. A pleasant surprise for an over 31 hour door to door journey. Almost all of the various flight crews and counter staff we encountered were surprisingly cheerful and helpful for such a busy holiday. So I hope United makes it.

Regarding the luggage locks, we purchased the TSA approved locks available at Brookstone and they work. I would say one bag out of four of ours are regularly opened, and they have all been relocked.

Sara Goo: Another good traveler experience. Sounds like you managed to make the best of a less-than-ideal experience. And a good review of the TSA locks! Thanks

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Alexandria, Va.: Was the holiday mess in Philadelphia basically the end of US Airways, or can they weather this?

Keith Alexander: I have been covering US Airways off and on for more than a decade now and this airline has been on the brink of going out of business numerous times and yet managed to bounce back. However, if some workers are willing to upset the holidays of thousands of travelers, then that's a sign that the employees have had enough. And without the workers dedication, it could be very difficult for the airline to keep going.

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Eastern Shore, Md.: I flew Dulles-Denver and back. It's a long trek to Dulles from the Eastern Shore, but the fare was unbelievable, and worth the extra 45 minutes or so it took to get to IAD.

On my return flight, on 12/26, the flight I was booked on was cancelled. United rebooked me on a non-stop, in an exit row even, and put in a baggage transfer request. I arrived within 15 minutes of my original arrival time, but it was only two days later that my bags were delivered to the Eastern Shore.

It's not a big deal, as I know better than to pack anything important in a checked bag. But, considering I only paid about $220 for my flight, didn't United lose most of the revenue -- not to mention profit -- by having to truck my bags out to the Shore? They "only" had three hours to make the transfer in Denver.

BTW, I had no problem getting through to a baggage agent at United on any of four or five times I called on the 27th and 28th. Their automated baggage information line, however, was worthless, each time saying they had not located my bags. When I spoke to an agent, they were always able to tell me exactly where the bags were.

Sara Goo: Airlines do take a hit every time a piece of luggage is lost and needs to be delivered to a passenger at home. And these days all airlines are operating on thin margins.

Thanks for relaying your experience about talking to an agent. If you can get through, it's usually faster than trying to track someone down at the airport to field your question.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I flew out of Philadelphia on Christmas day on US Airways. Arrived in Miami with just two of the four bags we checked. Went on a cruise, got one bag three days later, the last five days later. Do I have any recourse for the inconvenience they caused? Thank you.

Keith Alexander: Wow, that's horrible Philadelphia. Most airlines would problem try to offer some type of limited compensation for your troubles, but US Airways has major problems to deal with these days and it's likely your complaint might not make it to the top of the pile.

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Washington, D.C.: I like US Airways, but I can't remain silent about how especially malicious the wildcat strike by baggage handlers was. There are just a few days in the year when everyone is on the outbound leg of their trip and absolutely need their luggage. Christmas is the most important of these travel times, because people not only need their clothes they also travel with holiday gifts. It was a particularly nasty and harmful thing to do, and the airline may not survive it.

Keith Alexander: Actually Washington, there are many of travelers who feel the same way you do. And that does not bode well for the airline's future.

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Washington, D.C.: We returned to DC through Reagan National on Dec. 29. US Airways took over an hour to return six to eight flights' baggage. They did not post the carousels or flights numbers while putting baggage very slowly on the carousels. The only thing on the news was the baggage fiasco at Philadelphia. It appeared to us, based on the runaround and total lack of communication, that this was a deliberate slow down and mix up of baggage service. Did this happen to other passengers using US Airways? Is the Department of Transportation hotline interested in other baggage problems or just the Philadelphia issues?

Sara Goo: Good question. The Inspector General of the Dept of Transportation is looking into this and whether any of it was deliberate or related to false sick leave. So far, they have received over 1,000 calls from customers and I imagine most of them are complaints. It will probably take a few weeks for the IG to get to the bottom of things. But it seems like the federal government feels these problems were so large, that they want to do something about it.

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Washington, D.C.: I have nonrefundable tickets to travel to Florida on US Airways the week of January 17. Now it appears possible their mechanics union will be on strike, or that they will have other problems.

Should I go ahead and purchase tickets on another airline? Is there any other way to protect my trip?

Sara Goo: I think you're probably OK to keep the tickets. If you are really nervous, you could use some frequent flier miles on another carrier to book another flight and then you can cancel them at the last minute if US Airways seems to be operating smoothly.

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Herndon, Va.: Keith -- Read your column today. So, any hint as to when Delta will come out with the new fares? And which airline is likely to respond first -- i.e. who has the most to lose if they don't match Delta's offers?

washingtonpost.com: Delta's Plan Could Signal Shift in Pricing (Post, Jan. 4)

Keith Alexander: My sources tell me soon. But again, anything could happen. I think you will see US Airways have to make some more fare changes in response. United, which has been very quiet about making these types of changes, may also be forced to address this issue.

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Norfolk, Va.: Hi Sara and Keith,

Despite what USAir's website and most news reports have said, that company's travel troubles aren't over.
My fiance traveled on US Air Dec. 24 and we STILL haven't gotten his luggage - which unfortunately carried all his Christmas presents to me. Now, they can't even tell us where either of his bags are.
Two questions for you: Why can't airlines track baggage the way shipping companies like UPS do?
Secondly: Why can't US Air seem to straighten this out? The company has told us for the last four days that our bags were either 1.In the air, flying to our local airport; 2.At the airport, awaiting delivery; 3.In the delivery truck, on the way to our house. None of the above turned out to be true! Now they say they have no idea where our belongings are! If they really only have a few hundred bags left to sort out (as they have said), why are we still having this problem? Company representatives have not been able to address this question when we've asked.
Thanks!

Sara Goo: We've received a number of people with similar complaints about US Airways and luggage. Although some airlines have upgraded their luggage tracking systems, they are not nearly as sophisticated as UPS or FedEx, which allow you to track your order online. If your luggage still has a tag on it, they should be able to get it to you eventually. Keep calling the airline.

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Sara Goo: Thanks everyone for joining us and sharing your holiday travel stories. Happy 2005!

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Keith Alexander: Well everyone, thanks for your questions and comments. Because of time, we couldn't get to all of them and we apologize. But we'll try to do this again soon.

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