Military airfares are no bargain: Seek a better deal

July 7, 2008
Tribune Review

Betsy Eves could only curse when she learned what it would cost to fly her husband, Army Spc. David Eves, home after his tour in Iraq.

With less than a week’s notice, the military rate for a United Airlines flight from Baltimore to their Seattle home in February was $1,200 — twice the price of a regular fare.

Nationwide, some soldiers and their families are puzzled, and others incensed, that so-called military fares offered by U.S. airlines sometimes cost more than the cheapest tickets for leisure travelers. This contradicts a 2003 congressional resolution, and a local congressman said legislation is being considered to require airlines to give returning service members the cheapest tickets possible.

When bought more than a week in advance, a United military fare from Baltimore to Seattle would cost $600, an airline reservations representative said. Such tickets are sold on availability.

“To be honest with you, military fares aren’t worth anyone’s time,” Eves said. “Single soldier, married soldier — no matter what, they don’t help.”

A United Airlines spokesman said Eves’ situation was a “rarity.”

But frequently, it’s not.

The Tribune-Review compared military rates and regular fares for flights on various airlines between randomly chosen cities eight days before departure. In each case, the lowest military rate was more expensive than the lowest regular rate. For example, US Airways said Sunday that a ticket purchased for travel July 14 from Baltimore to Minneapolis would cost $565 at the military rate, while the cheapest advance fare was $399.

Airline spokesmen said military rates are set, while regular fares fluctuate — sometimes falling below the military price.

“It’s a feel-good corporate move by these airlines to say that they have these military rates,” said Nancy Totman, lobbyist for Blue Star Moms, a nationwide group of mothers of service members. “People are not getting their military fares, and it’s very frustrating.”

On their own

The government pays to fly soldiers on leave home from a combat theater.

Sometimes, service members don’t have the luxury of advance notice; they might get 24 hours’ notice of a leave. That raises the price of a domestic ticket because the purchase is so close to departure, airline officials and soldier advocate groups said. Some airlines add fees to cover a potential cancellation or flight change.

“I’ve been in the military for 25 years and fly my family all over the place, and I’ve never bought a military ticket,” said Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, spokesman for the Pennsylvania National Guard. “It’s because they’re so expensive.”

Though United and its competitors say Eves’ situation and others are anomalies, they acknowledge such price discrepancies occur. A congressional resolution passed in 2003 urged air carriers to offer active duty military members rates that are “comparable to the lowest airfare for ticketed flights.”

Because it was a resolution, the measure doesn’t bind airlines by law.

“These fares were never meant to be the lowest fare on a route,” American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said. “If there is a cheaper fare out there, we say you should do that. It’s my understanding that the military is extremely pleased with what we offer.

“We don’t advertise these rates or do anything to get publicity for them,” Wagner said. “American Airlines gets nothing out of this but knowing that we’re helping military members.”

All airlines declined to disclose how many military fares they sell every year.

Legislation eyed

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said numerous soldiers have told him airlines charge too much money for military rates.

“We specifically passed this (resolution) to ask airlines to be good corporate citizens,” Murphy said. “They come to us all the time for massive bailouts. We ask them to give soldiers a fair shake, and they failed.”

Said U.S. Rep Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale: “Congress may want to take another look at this issue in the near future.”

Murphy said he and other members of Congress are working to introduce a bill, possibly by the end of this week, that would ensure those in the armed forces can buy the cheapest tickets possible.

Terry Trippler, owner of Minneapolis-based Trippler Travel, which studies airline fares, said “it happens all the time” that military fares are more expensive than regular tickets. But Trippler said any attempt by Congress to regulate fares would be “politics.”

“Why do people think the airlines are a social agency industry?” he said. “Is a restaurant required to give military a discount? A gas station? No. This is not the airlines’ duty.”

When the average flight was more expensive and only the affluent took to the skies, military rates were substantially cheaper, Trippler said. Now, military fares frequently cost more because regular fares often are low. The same effect happened to senior citizen rates, he said.

What such rates do provide, American Airlines’ Wagner said, is flexibility and the assurance of usually finding a cheaper alternative than a regular ticket.

For example, the airline said it charges $99 to fly from Chicago to Raleigh, Nashville to New York City, and Dallas to St. Louis — among other flights — regardless of the time of purchase for members of the Armed Forces. Such rates are advertised through July 31.

Military rates are available for troops and their dependents but exclude relatives such as parents and siblings.

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