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For a Better Flight Experience, Avoid the Deceptive U.S. Legacy Airlines

don't fly the legacy USA airlines

If you fly to Panama on American Airlines, you will not pay to check a bag on your economy class international flight. If you fly to Costa Rica you will. Flying to South America with a checked bag does not incur a fee—“except Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.” For El Salvador it might cost you $35 or it might not. That depends on what month you travel.

If you have an AA credit card from Citi, that gets your bag fee waived, “but it only applies to domestic flights.” The flights are not domestic, but the flights aren’t international enough that your ticket includes a checked bag. So you’re screwed with a fee regardless unless you join all the passengers trying to shove their carry-on into the limited overhead space.

It is clear that with the 3 remaining legacy airlines in the USA, we are not customers, but cargo. If you want to feel like you’re reading a Kafka novel, go check out American’s baggage fees explanation here. It’s comically complicated, on purpose I’m sure. View from a window seat on an airplane while flying over a city

Which Airlines Treat You Right?

Compare those pages of text and charts in the link above to Southwest’s one-sentence policy: “When you fly with us, your first and second checked bags fly free (yep, that includes skis and golf bags).” I don’t need to link to their baggage page because that’s really all there is to it, domestic or international.

Or just go with a foreign carrier. If you fly Copa, Avianca, Aeromexico, or LATAM south from the U.S. or Canada, you don’t have to consult any complicated chart to see if you can check a suitcase. You might even get two. Here’s an actual text ad from the last one:

“Take up to two 50 lbs bags for free on LATAM Airlines. Find your flight.

If you fly those foreign airlines on any of these routes that American, Delta, or United flies, you will get a meal, entertainment, a cocktail, or a glass of wine as part of your ticket. On American Airlines you will get a small bag of pretzels. Oh, and the privilege of paying for an $8 snack box or a $7 beer. In order to watch a movie or TV show, you will need to swipe your credit card and pay. even if it’s a 4-hour international flight. (They give you a generous $2 discount for additional family members.)

So why exactly does anyone fly American elsewhere in the Americas? Apart from scheduling necessities, it’s hard to say. I’m guessing most of them who are not using mileage just don’t know any better.

My wife flew down to Central America on Copa Air and back on American this month for a trip because she couldn’t get an afternoon flight back on the former. The difference was like living in a luxury condo and then being sent to the slums. Plus she got socked with a $25 bag fee that was not disclosed in the booking process or in the e-mail confirmation.

And Copa isn’t even as nice as the Asian or Middle Eastern airlines, so if you’re crossing an ocean you have even less incentive to go domestic. (On Transatlantic flights on America, your first bag is free, but if you need to pack a second because you’re doing a presentation, you’re a musician, or you want to take sports equipment, look out! The second bag is $100.)

Think your first bag is free going to Europe on Delta? Not if you didn’t see the word “basic” when you booked. As the Washington Post noted in an article, “Starting April 10, it will charge basic economy passengers fees for checked bags — $60 for the first one and $100 for the second.” Ouch. 

The U.S. Airlines Spend a LOT on Lobbying

Many of these deceptive gotcha fee practices were supposed to go away after the DOJ imposed rules on the industry to force them to be transparent. The problem is, the legacy airlines are blatantly refusing to implement the policies and under the former administration, there was no mechanism to do anything about it. As in the financial industry, that administration was trying to strip away as many consumer rights as possible, winking to business that they’ll be allowed to get away with screwing us all over.

The U.S. Transportation Department quietly abandoned two proposed consumer rules, one that would have required airlines to disclose baggage fees at the start of a ticket purchase and one that would have made airlines report more information about their revenue from fees charged for extra services, such as early boarding, seat reservations and carry-on luggage.

The airlines are also defying the Mexican government by ignoring their law requiring airlines to allow one free checked bag when flying into the country. JetBlue got fined, but the rest are basically saying, “Sue us. We don’t need no stinking bag laws.”

Flying on one of the big 3 legacy airlines in the USA is a rough expeirence. Go Southwest or foreign instead. The Big 3 legacy airlines consistently rank near the bottom around the world in customer service surveys. In the annual Skytraxx rankings of the top-100 airlines in the world, American Airlines comes in at #77, between Ethiopian Airlines and one called Peach. (It’s American Eagle division comes in at #84, nosing out Kenya Airlines.)

Going by their actions, they really don’t care that most people now hate to fly with them. Individual employees may care, but they’re hobbled by the greedy execs and are constantly having to reply to customer ire with empty apologies. The individual employees love to say on the loudspeaker, “Let us know if we can do anything to make your flight more comfortable,” but now I see passengers openly laughing when they hear that, or asking, “Can I get some legroom?” It’s an empty platitude, like “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

They don’t really have the power to fix problems resulting from greedy policies–like separating families to eke out more “premium economy fees.” They often don’t even have a logical explanation about why one flight incurs fees and another one doesn’t, or why a family of three can’t sit together without begging other passengers for a favor. They have to shrug and apologize.

On one northeastern U.S. flight I was on last year with a legacy airline, a flustered mother was asking the flight attendant what to do since her family of four got seated in three different rows. It got loud and other passengers started making suggestions on what she should do: “Fly Southwest!” “Take Amtrak!” “You’d be better off on Megabus!” That’s how bad it has gotten. Universal disdain for the service they have purchased.

What You Can Do About It

Since nobody in government is looking out for you anymore and the big consolidated airlines continue to show they consider all of us faceless cargo with no rights, there’s really one action that will make a difference.

You can vote with your wallet.

With Avianca Airlines you don't pay a checked bag fee

Forget loyalty and fly the cheap seats.

If the legacy airlines are going to keep sliding to the bottom to compete with Allegiant, then just fly on Allegiant and pay a lot less for the same product. I’ve been on their planes more than the Big 3’s the past year and it was not just cheaper, but more pleasant, honestly. After all, I only earned about 1,000 “miles” on United going Tampa-Houston-Panama, so there’s little point anymore in being loyal in terms of point earnings unless you’re at a high elite level. Even the budget Mexican airlines are going to treat you better than the established legacy U.S. ones.

Only fly the legacy airlines when it’s free

I’m flying Delta back from Belize next month after going down on Southwest. The return flight is on points earned via a credit card though, so I only have to pay the taxes. Play the travel hacking game right and you’ll only fly the Big 3 when you’re flying them for free. (Well almost free—I had to pay $77 in taxes.) Even better, use a premium card from Chase and you can fly any airline, anytime.

Fly Southwest to Mexico and Central America.

Southwest goes a lot more places than they used to. I’m flying to Belize with them next month. If you’re going to a Mexican beach resort with luggage, they could save you hundreds of dollars in fees. Get their credit card and you’ll earn easy-to-understand and easy-to-book mileage credit with them too.

Book with a foreign airline

Get on virtually any foreign airline departing from our shores and you’re almost sure to enjoy a better experience. I really saw this first-hand last year when I flew Turkish Air all the way to Kyrgyzstan, then got crammed into a lousy United flight coming back. It was night and day. I’ve heard more people rave about Norwegian than I’ve heard rave about American, United, and Delta combined. The big U.S. ones are all budget airlines now (except Southwest, ironically), so explore every alternative to the legacy airlines before rewarding bad behavior.



Monday 11th of March 2019

It gets even worse -- I've had a "lifetime" American Admirals Club membership (no longer offered) for over 50 years, and suddenly American decided to unilaterally refuse to honor it; while simultaneously voiding my associated Advantage Account containing 95,000+ miles! Reason? Initially because they determined (by surfing the internet) that I was deceased, and then after proving that incorrect by saying that because I was under 18 at the time of purchase and the purchase was therefore not "legal". The real reason is that they don't want to honor lifetime memberships that last as long as 50 years. At this point I just want a refund of the membership fee and restoration of my award miles, but they have so far been unwilling to consider either of those. Talk about lack of respect for customers!!!


Friday 8th of June 2018

Every time I fly on a foreign airline, going back to the U.S. ones feels like being sent to the principal's office for punishment. Recently flew Turkish, Qatar, Thai Airways, and Avianca. Then I had to come home on United and I can't think of one good thing to say about it.


Tuesday 20th of March 2018

You are aware that Delta holds a substantial stake in Aeromexico ...around 49 % I believe. In fact on the last two Aeromexico flights I have taken (March 2018) Delta''s name was painted on the plane at the door just underneath Aeromexico's.

Tim Leffel

Thursday 22nd of March 2018

Thankfully their service ethic and amenities restrictions haven't worn off. You still get a meal, drinks, and included checked bag on Aeromexico.


Tuesday 27th of February 2018

I could not agree more.. I never fly american based airlines unless it is the only airline going to my destination.. They are all a disgrace!


Tuesday 27th of February 2018

Great article, Tim.

Last year the wife and I flew to Europe on United biz class on points. It was best described as ‘enhanced cattle class’ save for the big seats. Terrible food and service. Almost as bad as Air Canada, which run their ops like a 3rd world country, except that’s an insult - to 3rd world countries. Writing this missive in the Yucatán, where the best part of the journey was connecting to a Aeroméxico flight.