Airlines – And Media – Should Stop Using The Deceptive Term “Direct Flight”

Over the past several days there’s been an argument brewing on twitter over the concept of “non-stop” versus “direct” flights, and how the difference confuses consumers.

With a non-stop flight you take off from one city and land at your destination. A direct flight between those cities entails landing somewhere else first. It may really just mean a connection to another plane, but that new plane carriers the same flight number as the first one.

The primary protagonists in the online drama are Jamie Baker and Seth Miller, with Baker arguing that the concept of direct flights is deceptive while Miller suggests that the practice is fine as long as an airline conforms to the guidelines of industry lobbying arm IATA.

This all started because Qantas called the AKL-JFK flight direct. The airline, not the media. Emirates did it this week, too.

Nonstop is, per IATA definitions, a subset of direct.

I'm done here. Go fight with someone else about something stupid.

— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) August 26, 2022

Why Direct Flights Once Made Sense

Drawing on the experience of railroads, which used the trains of one on the tracks of another, airlines in 1940 began interchange service. The federal government dictated what routes airlines could fly (and what they could charge). Planes couldn’t fly non-stop across the country. This literally meant one plane through-service across the routes of two different airlines. This was one kind of ‘direct flight’.

United Airlines and Western Airlines (now part of Delta) entered into an agreement in 1939 (not approved until 1940) to provide single aircraft overnight sleeper service between New York and Los Angeles. They swapped aircraft in Salt Lake City. United had its own aircraft flying New York to San Francisco direct (not non-stop!) but United lacked the authortiy from the federal Civil Aeronautices Board to fly from the East Coast to Los Angeles. You could fly United to Salt Lake and then connect to Western Airlines Salt Lake to Southern California – but with the advent of this interchange agreement it was same-plane service all the way.

1948 American Airlines and Delta (!) agreed to same plane interchange service between Miami and Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco via Dallas. This was approved in 1949.

The other form of direct flight, which predated interchange agreement, was single plane service because (1) aircraft weren’t yet advanced enough to fly non-stop across the country and (2) routes weren’t mature enough, so stops along the way would pick up and drop off passengers.

They Became Deceptive

Airlines developed their own computer reservation systems and placed them in travel agencies, who would sell tickets using algorithms that favored the system’s owners. “Display bias” due to ownership is no longer an issue, but airlines worked to ‘game’ which flights appeared first in results in other ways, since a higher display position was more likely to lead to a sale. Direct flights were aimed at a higher display position, in other words to make it appear that the flights were more desirable.

Meanwhile people think a direct flight means they’re protected in case of delays – they’re on the same plane, perhaps, so the second flight can’t take off until the first one lands, or that the airline needs to at least hold that second flight. Neither is necessarily the case but consumers may favor them nonetheless.

Southwest has plenty of same aircraft flights with the same flight number, but I’ve had readers surprised to book a single flight number from Washington DC to Tokyo – beginning on a Boeing 737 and connecting to a 787. When there is a change of aircraft, both aircraft can be in the air at the same time – there’s no need for the airline to ‘wait for you’.

When I googled ‘direct versus non-stop flights’ the first result claimed that for a direct flight you at least do not get off of the plane. This is clearly wrong but it’s the very first search result. Clearly ‘direct flights’ are confusing to people!

Now They Can Harm Customers

Direct flights can be worse than connecting flights on the same exact route with the same flight times. Airline systems often require that the same seat be available on both flight segments in order to have it assigned, since their computers treat the seat map as one for both flights. And upgrades may not process properly, either.

At a minimum they confuse customers, and it may be harder for them to learn the actual route and timing of their trip – even when passengers understand they aren’t flying non-stop.

There’s no longer a meaningful upside to direct flights to weigh against the confusion they entail. On net the practice is a negative one for consumers.

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