Direct flights are stoo-pid!

I’ve mentioned this several times before, but I feel the need to mention it again, so forgive me.

One of the most frustrating things in the airline industry is when flights are marketed as “direct” flights. In theory (and in practice for some airlines) it makes sense. For example, I recently flew Singapore Airlines from Houston to Singapore via Moscow. We had the same aircraft the whole way and arrived and departed from the same gate in Moscow, so it’s perfectly reasonable to tag that as a single flight number, in my opinion.

Southwest also does direct flights correctly. If you’re on a flight with the same flight number and connecting all the way through it’s going to be the same airplane the whole way, and you can even stay on the airplane during the connection.

And then there are most of the other airlines, which recklessly use “direct” flights. It used to be that these were used for the purposes of marketing “direct” service between two cities (with a stop along the way), though over the years it has become a bit of a joke. Any two flights could be a direct flight, even if there’s an aircraft or terminal change. This is deceiving because as a consumer when you’re booking a direct flight it looks like a nonstop flight on the surface. But then you show up at the airport and find out that you’re not only connecting somewhere, but have the possibility of misconnecting.

So to sum it up the reasons I hate direct flights are as follows:

  • You’re only credited the mileage for the direct distance between the origin and destination
  • Your upgrade doesn’t clear unless there’s upgrade space on all flights
  • You’re issued a single boarding pass which doesn’t even state at which time your connecting flight boards
  • You could still have to switch terminals at your connecting airport, or even misconnect if your first flight is delayed, even though the entire trip is a “direct” flight

Let me give a couple of examples. A few weeks ago I was flying from Tampa to Houston via Charlotte on US Airways. As it turned out this was a “direct” flight (which is pretty ironic, because I’m not sure what’s “direct” about flying double the direct distance between two points).

Looking at the boarding pass, there’s not even an indication that I’m connecting in Charlotte. There’s no gate assignment or boarding time for my flight from Charlotte to Houston either.

So in Tampa I went to the US Airways Club and they announced a 40 minute delay for the Tampa to Charlotte flight (funny enough the name of the lady working the US Airways Club in Tampa is… you guessed it, Charlotte. Wonder if they would’ve hired her if her name was Detroit or Houston?). I decided to play dumb and said “I heard you said flight 1203 was delayed. Does that also apply for the Houston flight?” She said “of course, you’re going through Charlotte.” I said “oh, I am? But I assume it’ll be the same plane to Houston, right?” She indicated it wasn’t, and even informed me I’d have to switch terminals in Charlotte. She warned me that I may misconnect.

Now of course I’m savvier than that and knew I was going through Charlotte, but the average consumer really has no way of knowing. And it would suck to show up at the airport, be told you have a connecting city, and then end up getting stuck in a city you didn’t even know you were traveling through because your first flight was delayed.

And I’m running into similar “direct” flight issues for a Tampa to Seattle trip (via Dallas) I’m supposed to take in a few days, though for exactly the opposite reasons. Here’s what lists for the flight:

The flight segments are listed separately, unlike the US Airways scenario above. You wouldn’t even notice that this is a “direct” flight unless you paid close attention to the flight numbers and noticed they were the same. And who pays attention to flight numbers, unless it’s flight 666 and you’re superstitious, or it’s flight 69 and you have the sense of humor of a 13 year old?

When I book the flight and request an upgrade, though, I get the following:

This means the upgrade request is going in as if this is a single flight segment, which exponentially decreases my chances of getting an upgrade. There would have to be confirmable upgrade space on both the Tampa to Dallas and Dallas to Seattle flights for any upgrade to clear. And on top of that I’d only earn miles for the direct distance between Tampa and Seattle.

Admittedly this is more of a rant than anything else, though it really is time for the airlines to reconsider “direct” flights, unless they’re used properly (like Southwest, Singapore, etc.). They’re not typically used for marketing purposes anymore, and they end up just screwing over passengers.

Filed Under: Advice
  1. There is a US700 LAX-PHL (B757) and another US700 PHL-FRA (A333). I couldn’t book premium award ticket because on the 1st leg, it was coded as F and the second one, coded C. As such, they cannot booked me on 2 different classes on the “same flight” ( which is not at all, different plane, different route and probably different terminal at PHL)

  2. I have a direct flight (DL 16) next month. I know we stop in LAX, I wonder if it will be the same plane or not.

  3. I had a “Whose on first” moment with a direct flight on NW years ago. I was on flight XXX thru DTW to JAX. We were late leaving and the continuation left on time. So I go to a desk to rebook:

    “What was your inbound flight?” XXX
    “What flight were you connecting to?” XXX
    “No, not your inbound, your connecting flight” Both were XXX
    “How could you miss it? Did you get off the plane and forget to get back on?” No, it left before I got here.

    …and so on.

    At least NW only did this on domestic flights. Delta does it on international flights, which means you don’t get a upgrade on the domestic portion, which is adding insult to injury since you only get “direct” miles.

  4. A few months back I found DEN-ORD via FLL (or some other Florida airport), unfortunately it was a direct flight. I get the ones like IAD-SFO-HNL being a direct flight (they are the same exact distance), even something like TPA-SFO-HNL, but one where it is like 3x miles than the non-stop is a bit crazy.

  5. What Fred said about Delta. What bothers me the most is missing out on the miles. If I have to get off the plane, go to another terminal and get onto a completely different plane that is NOT a direct flight. I tried to battle them for the mileage but it was a lost cause and ultimately not worth it.

  6. @JPS DL 16 is often a B77L on both segments (SYD-LAX and LAX-ATL). It might not be the exact same aircraft, but that doesn’t matter since you have to get down in LAX for immigration anyway.

    What’s absurd is that the reverse flight, DL 17, is usually two different aircraft, an A330/B767 on ATL-LAX and B77L on LAX-SYD. In the case of delay, it’s possible to miss your continuing flight … on the same number!

  7. One thing direct flights are good for: they’re treated as a single nonstop flight for purposes on using BA Avios.

  8. @Lucky: I don’t disagree with you on today’s regressive “direct” flights that penalize the customer with sloppy scheduling and benefit the airline by providing fewer frequent flier benefits. On the other hand, maybe now would be a good time to ask why you have no specific problem with American Airlines’ LGA JFK connections? Last I checked (which has been a while) there was nothing obvious about what was happening unless you took it upon yourself to check. Folks like you and I will do this simply out of curiosity and habit, but many consumers may not even be aware that this is a possibility until after they’ve made their purchase.

  9. I thought I recently read about where this “direct” flight scenario can actually benefit you with certain award redemptions. I think it was for distance based charts where instead of getting charged the miles for the “long way” with the connection, you get charged for the “direct” route. I can’t remember where though to credit the author.

  10. Lucky, since airlines don’t really make a big deal about marketing these this way any more, is there any other justification they use for doing it?

  11. @ thrashsoundly — Correct, ultimately the distance is calculated as the direct distance, which can be helpful on a distance based award/ticket. But I’d say the loss of miles on revenue tickets outweighs the benefit of that.

  12. @ Dax — In my experience there’s a disclaimer which reads “Different connection airports,” no? Definitely agree they could make the disclaimer bigger though.

  13. @ Zach — I have no clue. I suspect it’s just “easier” for them to do as opposed to adding more flight numbers.

  14. My understanding is that United they are doing this domestically, not because they expect anyone to fly the route, but because they are trying to conserve numbers. So many numbers are needed for codeshares and commuter flights, that they don’t have enough numbers to give each mainline flight a unique number

  15. I, too, have always found this practice utterly deceptive and I’m shocked that the government — which loves to regulate things that are exponentially sillier than this — allows it to continue, seeing as to how this isn’t silly at all.

  16. In my experience, AA tends to be pretty good about “direct” flights being the same plane leaving from the same gate from which it arrives in the “connecting” city. Or at least this is the case from flights with distance/weight restrictions to hubs.

    A note about Southwest. You wrote: “and you can even stay on the airplane during the connection.” In reality, it’s even better than that. On a recent LAX-CHS flight, we connected in BNA and all but a dozen or so passengers actually got off the plane, leaving bulkhead and exit row seats for everyone who wanted them. Still, though, it was Southwest…

  17. In addition to the benefit when it shortens the mileage required, there is also a modest benefit when the FF program prices each segment individually, even with no stopover, like Iberia does. It will price the direct flight as one segment.

    Take for example, LAX to BCN. If you book the direct flight, you change in MAD, but it’s only 75k roundtrip. If you can’t book it as direct, the exact same itinerary with a similar change, is 88,500, because you pay for the segments individually.

  18. @Lucky: Glad to hear it. Last time I was looking at flights I didn’t see any such warning, although I guess it’s been a while. I just think back to the hassle of creating a stopover on your own and ponying up for hotels and taxis when it always seemed to me that AA should be handling the shuttle service for the connections they created. Tack on another $10 or whatever each way and make things so much easier for your customers. Maybe in today’s dollars it would be $20 or whatever, but still cheaper and easier than solving AA’s problem on your own.

  19. Flew MSP-NRT-SIN on DL. The miles are about the same direct or otherwise. Iit’s labeled as a direct flight but you have to pay for EC twice. Not only do you change gates at NRT but you change planes. Both legs use a 772, but the planes are actually different (though perhaps not always).

  20. I’m not sure I truly buy the “conserve flight numbers” thing. While the UACO holdings website says that UA and UAX operate a combined 5500+ flights per day (does that include codeshares?), the four-digit flight numbers allow for up to 10,000 flights.

    There’s no rule that says what types of flights have to get assigned which blocks of flight numbers. When I worked for UAX, we were actually given a rather narrow block of flight numbers in the 7000 series — not the whole block. UA could have given themselves one of the 7XXX not assigned to us.

  21. Direct flights can be nice on AAdvantage awards in that your North American Gateway can be the city served directly but not nonstop. The NRT-ORD-BOS direct flight, for example. I believe I’ve read on FT that there is a way to split direct flights on AA.

  22. The one thing I don’t get is if it is a direct flight you have to switch airplanes. If one segment is delayed and the other segment takes off aren’t there 2 planes with the same flight number in the air? What would happen if both were in the air and then something happened to one of the segments and then the news reports, “flight 1234 has made an emergency landing,” if you are waiting for someone on that flight then you are sweating bullets.

  23. @ Aeroman380 — That I can answer. ATC adds an extra designator to the call sign in that case, like a letter at the end — “American 67 Tango,” for example.

  24. Have you issued complaints to the respective agencies? Nothing will change unless people take action.

  25. There are 5 DIRECT non-stop flights from TPA to IAH daily on United. Why not just fly on United for that trip.

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