Major airlines sell two types of flights: nonstops, which fly straight to your destination, and direct flights, which have connections.
So-called "direct" flights come in two flavors. On an ordinary direct flight, you stay on the same plane during the layover and fly to your final destination. On a "fake" direct flight, you have to get off the plane, go to a new gate, and board a new plane. This can be an unpleasant surprise for travelers.
It's been a long-standing practice to operate the US leg of an international flight, such as Denver to Dulles to London, with a switch to a larger plane to cross the ocean. Fine. But for domestic flights, switching planes is a pain, and it's deceptive for travelers when they're booking their tickets.
For example, United has many flights between Chicago to Denver. Some are nonstops. Others are "direct." Here's an example of a "direct" one: The first "leg" of flight 817 stops in Minneapolis at gate E6. You then have to get out, and get on a new plane at gate E10 to continue to Denver.
Why is this a problem? If the first "leg" is delayed, the airline won't hold the second "leg" until you arrive because, according to its computers, these are two separate flights. The computers are being honest.
Upgrades are tricky to book on fake "direct" flights, too, because the computers think the flights are separate, requiring two awards—not one.
How do you spot a fake "direct" flight? Remember: Just because the flight number stays the same doesn't mean you remain on the same plane.
Read the details of your itinerary before you purchase a ticket. Are there gate changes at the connecting airport? If so, it's a fake direct flight. Read what your departure and arrival times are—lengthy delays are a signal. Of course, once you book one of these flights, another signal is if you have to select your seat twice on the way to your destination.
United has recently increased the number of fake direct domestic flights, according to journalist Nicholas Kralev. Delta has a high number of these "fake" flights, too. But American Airlines and Southwest Airlines honorably make sure all of their "direct" flights are one-plane, no-change trips.
In another twist, airlines can take a nonstop flight you booked and turn it into a direct or fake direct one. If you receive an e-mail from your airline or online travel agency saying that you're nonstop has become a multistep, you have a right to ask to be rebooked on a different nonstop option or to have your money refunded without any fees.
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