Fact-checking the experts

There are some columnists, like Joe Brancatelli, that are both insightful and consistently get their facts right. In Joe’s case, I think he’s often a bit over-the-top, such as when he recommended that the federal government nationalize all the airlines. But at least his advice is generally sound.

On the other hand, there are columnists that consistently get their facts wrong or offer only half the story, so that their advice is unhelpful. I haven’t developed a comprehensive list of these people to avoid, but I did read one column this morning that really set me off. Christopher Elliott’s piece on five outstanding airline flights offered tidbits just are just wrong.

I haven’t read enough of his work to know if this is a one-off occurrence or something that’s endemic to his writing. But let me get off my chest the things that bothered me about his piece.

His goal was to identify five flights that are consistently enjoyable and above average, as a contrast to the myriad of pieces identifying the worst flights in the country.

The first flight he offered was Dallas-San Francisco.

Reason #1:

    It’s long enough so you can finish that sales presentation — and you often get a meal, too — but short enough that you don’t arrive with that awful pressurized-cabin headache.

I don’t know which DFW-SFO flights he’s been on lately, but you’re only likely to get an actual meal in First Class, and a hot meal is only likely at designated meal times.

Reason #2:

    Because both Dallas and San Francisco are hub cities, carriers such as American Airlines will fly an aircraft with three-class configurations between them — the idea being that the aircraft will later be used on a trans-Pacific flight. That means that the business class cabin will be designated economy class.

This is only true on American Airlines, and only on certain flights. This is not true at all on the other hub carrier involved, United Airlines. Moreover, these business class seats — with economy meals/service — can only be reserved by American Airlines elites (Gold/Platinum/Executive Platinum). It’s possible for someone else to get them at the airport, but a real crapshoot. Elliott doesn’t tell us that.

The second flight he offered was New York (LaGuardia)-Boston.

One of the reasons is:

    It’s so easy and efficient,” raves Karen Vaites, an executive from Manhattan. “The ability to pull up to the curb at 7:20 p.m. and be on the 7:30 p.m. flight most of the time is invaluable.”

While this was certainly true pre-9/11, this is a dubious recommendation nowadays. It’s highly unlikely that one can make it to the airport 10 minutes in advance of a flight and still make it on. Moreover, Elliott doesn’t mention the rampant delays that face LaGuardia. Shuttle flights are on average pretty good, but the reasons why aren’t the ones in the Elliott piece.

The third flight he offered was Albuquerque, N.M., to Tampa, Fla.

That’s a long flight on Southwest in it’s cramped seats. Okay, Southwest is a good airline. And we all value different things. But so much time in coach, without a pre-reserved seat guaranteeing an aisle, seems like a stretch to call one of the 5 best flights going.

The fourth flight is Long Beach, California to Washington Dulles.

This time Elliott nails it — if I’m flying coach on a transcon, I might arguably want to be on JetBlue flight. Maybe American’s greater legroom (or United’s in the front of the coach section, but this is reserved for elites and full fare passengers) is better. But that’s debateable and Elliott offers a good point.

Finally, Houston to Las Vegas

On Continental. Why?

    The reason: Insiders tell me the airline is generous on upgrades for frequent fliers.

He needs insiders to tell him that the main selling point of Continental’s elite program is that they give free domestic upgrades based on availability and status to their elite flyers?

And while Elliott correctly points out that Vegas is a heavy leisure destination, and that upgrades should be easy to come by as a result, Continental is notorious for holding their first class seats out of Vegas to the last minute and not releasing them for upgrade until the day of departure. They seem to think they might get a high roller on a winning streak purchasing the fares, and so they don’t give them away to frequent flyers until late in the game.

Finally, regarding this flight (or is it flights generally?) Elliott says

    You don’t have to be a quadruple-titanium, ultra-elite frequent flier to get good seats. Sometimes all it takes is a frequent-flier card and a friendly gate agent for a successful upgrade.

Ok, fine. It doesn’t happen often. It’s possible. But he offers no suggestions how to make this happen. I, on the other hand, offer tips on how to get upgrade coupons even if you aren’t an elite.

I don’t mean to single out Christopher Elliott. It just seems to me that a good columnist has to get the facts right and tell the whole story in order to be useful. This column didn’t seem to do that.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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