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Charter Smarter - Rules For Flying Charter Airlines

(June 6, 2002)

Squished in the back of USA 3000's Airbus 320, I knew it was going to be an interesting flight to Punta Cana. Things got even more interesting when a large man wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt bellowed, "Are you ready?" "Aye yi Captain," his traveling companions barked back. In tandem, they begin singing, or rather slurring, the theme song from the cartoon Sponge Bob over and over. At that point, I just looked at my family pondering what exactly I had gotten us into.

Welcome to the wonderful world of vacation airline charters, where the fares are cheap and the travelers can be a bit over the top.

What's a charter?

The main difference between a "scheduled" flight and a charter flight is that charter flights are scheduled on certain days each week and may not depart every day as scheduled airlines do. Also, charters are mostly operated by companies that specialize in them; however, they can be operated by scheduled carriers like US Airways, United, and Southwest, to name a few.

In Europe, charter flights are the way most Europeans go on vacation, mainly because they are generally the least expensive way to fly and are often the most convenient (as they usually go direct and are often scheduled to maximize your vacation time). They also don't have the wide variety of fare categories, restrictions, and stay requirements that scheduled airlines do. Plus, for last-minute travel, you won't pay a large premium if a seat is available, and you often get a discount.

When major U.S. airlines cut back on flights after September 11, charter flights filled the void, becoming a preferred vacation option, as in Europe.

Things to consider

Public charters are regulated, but under different rules than scheduled carriersórules which provide for less consumer protection. For this reason, Real Traveler highly recommends that you consider the reputation of the tour operator that has chartered the flight because it is through them that you are most likely to get compensation if something goes awry.

Also, before you show up at the airport with your passport and snorkel gear, review the tour package carefully, and investigate the operator. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Charter airlines can cancel flights up to 10 days prior to departure.
  • Charter airlines are allowed to change schedules at the last minute.
  • Charter airlines are allowed to delay flights for up to 48 hours with no mandated compensation.
  • Most charters do not have reciprocal agreements with scheduled airlines, so you will not be put on an alternate airline.
The tour operator is not obligated to provide alternate transportation or to compensate you for your expenses if a delay happens. Check the contract to see if the operator will cover any costs associated with flight delays. Know your rights. According to Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, you have a right to cancel a charter package without penalty if the operator makes a "major change," such as departure, return date, or city changes; hotel substitutions not named in the charter contract; or a package price increase of more than 10 percent.

"Fifth freedom" charters

Some U.S. tour operators contract with foreign airlines for charter flights. These flights are termed "fifth freedom" charters by the DOT, meaning a carrier from Country A flies between Country B and Country C, without serving its homeland. While the DOT routinely approves such flights, there is much debate about whether allowing these flights is hurting the U.S airline industry.

In March, the National Air Carriers Association (NACA) petitioned the DOT to limit the ability of foreign airlines to offer charter flights between the U.S. and third countries. According to NACA figures, foreign carriers have operated more than 7,500 round-trip charter flights originating in the U.S with the majority being "fifth freedom" flights. NACA estimates that the lost business has cost U.S. airlines more than $500 million since 1999.

Investigate a charter

You can call the DOT Public Charter Licensing Division (202-366-2396) to make sure the charter operator has properly filed paperwork to operate flights from the departure city to the specified destination. Charter packages cannot be sold until the charter filing is approved by the DOT.

Real Traveler again recommends that you pay by credit card since it provides more consumer protection. If you must pay by check or money order, make it payable to an escrow account (required by federal law for charters), and call the bank handling the escrow account to confirm its validity. Be sure to put down the return date of the trip on the check because the bank won't release the funds until after your trip has been completed. Lastly, be wary of charter operators who are reluctant to provide escrow bank information.

Real Traveler thoughts

My flights on USA 3000 (the charter airline of Apple Vacations) were quite amusing, to say the least. Nevertheless, I could have not flown nonstop from Pittsburgh to Punta Cana on any scheduled carrier. If I had, it would have taken over 10 hours with connections instead of the four I flew.

One thing to keep in mind is that public charters handle mostly vacationers; therefore, it's normal to expect more people in "party" mode. While the flight down was boisterous, the flight home was serene. It was quite clear everyone was exhausted from having a good time.

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