Saturday, December 12, 2009

Charter Flights vs. Scheduled Flights (Part I)

There are enormous differences between charter flights and scheduled flights, and sometimes we all forget to take these into account when we book travel. Simply because a flight is regularly "scheduled" does not make is a "scheduled flight"; it is simply a charter flight that operates on with regularity. Similarly, a scheduled airline, operating a weekly service to a sunspot throughout the winter, carrying holidaymakers does not make it a charter airline. Unless, of course, it is an airline that has chartered its aircraft to an inclusive tour operator.

Get it?

It is, in fact, important to note the differences between each type of carrier before one purchases a ticket to ride; they each offer benefits and there are potential drawbacks that may not be obvious at first.

The most important difference is in the operating license. This is a code determining the standard of service that must be offered by an airline offering seats for individual sale. A charter operator is permitted a substantial freedom to alter their schedule by "up to 24 hours up to 24 hours prior to departure". This freedom is often used by vacation charters to offer departures on Fridays and Saturdays with their touching and everlasting optimism that this year will be the best. The flexibility in operating schedule means that they can "consolidate" the two flights a day or so prior to departure with no penalty.

Successive legal suits for damages resulting from this circumstance have found for the carriers with the overriding legal principle being the befit of the greater good; many more folks are able to take advantage of lower-priced vacations by allowing carriers this flexibility than those inconvenienced.

There is a message, however, and that is that travellers should make absolutely sure that they know the rules under which they have purchased an airline ticket.

Scheduled carriers, in complete contrast, must publish schedules and stick to them, even if only one passenger shows up to fly from Winnipeg to Timmins on a blustery Tuesday morning in February; consolidation is not an option. I must say though that there have been a number of suspicious "mechanical" cancellations that have stretched the credulity of a half-dozen or so inconvenienced passengers from time to time.

Carriers play this card with care; if a scheduled carrier arrives more than four hours late, they are required to file a "show cause" explaining why they are delayed. They run the risk of forfeiting their licenses should they develop a pattern of tardiness or cancellation, and do play this hand with great care.

We all use charter carriers from time to time; sun vacations, in particular, depend on a complex matrix of airline seats, hotel rooms, transfer vehicles and matching catering to maximise both the offering to the travelling public and the return to their own shareholders. Tour operating is extremely high-stakes poker, and I have boundless respect for those who play in this game; there are great risks and potentially great rewards.

The ability to vary their schedule to match their loads from time to time, however, is both a right and a privilege that they enjoy and use wisely, and a vital tool that allows them to offer a broad range of vacation products.

However, passengers booking flights with these carriers should be aware of the possible issues arising from this ability; do not book non-refundable tickets from far away to connect to a charter flight that might subsequently alter its schedule. You will be stuck with two exclusive contracts; one from the connecting carrier who has absolutely no obligation to make your trip work (after all, they only contracted to fly you to and from Toronto), and one from the charter operator who does not care how you "get to the airport"; their operating regulations permit schedule changes, and if they do so that have no obligation to passengers who suffer financial or geographic inconvenience.

So beware, buyer; know that rarely can one purchase the same product with wildly variant prices without a very good reason. Find out the reason, and then decide if you are willing to accept the potential risk.

Of course, one reason for chartering flights may well be to allow behaviour that may otherwise be though to push the envelope somewhat; a German carrier has recently advertised nudist charter flights. An expression of joie de vivre that might be frowned upon by a more staid carrier.

Next time, a financial snapshot of the differences between charters and scheduled flights!

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