Monday, July 28, 2014
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Advice to Northwest fliers: Don't panic
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Travel experts say people planning to fly on Northwest Airlines shouldn't panic, but should be aware that flight schedules may change and frequent flyer rules may become more restrictive. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Some consumer groups that give advice on flying say the public should not panic in the wake of Northwest's bankruptcy filing. They say bankrupt airlines are becoming a fact of life. These advisors, however, do have some tips about how travelers can protect themselves in buying tickets and using frequent flyer miles on bankrupt airlines.

St. Paul, Minn. — Northwest has company in filing for bankruptcy -- Delta, United, US Air, ATA, and Aloha Airlines. Those other airlines, however, have shown that bankrupt airlines do continue flying and consumers continue to buy tickets. And that was in the minds of some travelers at Minneapolis St. Paul airport.

An unscientific sample of travelers said they're not worried about Northwest. One woman who declined to give her name said other bankrupt airlines are still in business, so why worry about Northwest.

"Fifty percent of the airlines are under bankruptcy, so 50 percent of the time you're going to be flying someone that's bankrupt," the woman said.

Charley Troxel is a DNA chemist from Lincoln, Nebraska who says he flies a lot for his job. He too, wasn't surprised Northwest filed. He voiced one of the reasons why the big airlines like Northwest are struggling. Troxel said he would prefer to fly one of the new, smaller airlines.

"I would love it if Southwest flew out of Lincoln, and I'm sure my company would, too. They seem to go a lot of places," said Troxel. "They're not a fly-by-night airline anymore and it would be really nice."

Other travelers said they might not book more flights on Northwest because they didn't want to cross the mechanics' picket lines. Some customers are worried about the safety of the airline, given the replacement mechanics.

Several travelers, including David Tincher from Ramsey, Minnesota, said it didn't pay to worry about Northwest now, because there was no choice.

"There's not a lot of options. But I've already got plans into next month to fly Northwest Airlines, so I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed and see how we get home," said Tincher.

Last May, Consumers Union published an article on how travelers flying on bankrupt airlines can protect themselves. Consumers Union's Lisa Lee Freeman says travelers should realize that Northwest might begin dropping flights and changing routes.

"What I wouldn't do is book too far out. Book within the next couple of months," said Freeman. "And book with a credit card so you have some protection. So if services aren't provided as you reserved, or as you booked, you will get your money back."

Freeman also suggests travelers with a lot of frequent flyer miles try using them now. She says with time, as Northwest cuts routes, there will be fewer of those seats available.

She also suggests that even if you can't redeem your miles from a bankrupt airline, try using them with that carrier's partner airlines -- in Northwest's case, KLM or Continental.

Tim Winship is editor of FrequentFlier.com, a Web site that offers advice to consumers about frequent flyer programs. Winship says consumers should not panic, because Chapter 11 doesn't mean the airline is going out of business.

But cashing in those miles may become more difficult and frustrating. Winship said that's because bankrupt airlines need money, and frequent flyer miles don't add money to a struggling airline's balance sheet.

"The pressure to show quarterly results on the revenue side is only going to increase under bankruptcy," said Winship. "So my best guess is that we will see the situation with respect to award availability go from bad to worse."

Winship says those with a lot of frequent flyer miles might also consider donating those miles to charity.

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