For years the term "charter" was one of the dirty words in the travel business.
In the halcyon days of airline regulation, scheduled carriers were protected on their ticket prices, and discount flights didn't exist. Many foreign countries, eager to protect their own airlines, kept ticket prices high and regulations strict. About the only way to fly somewhere cheaply was to take a charter, if you could.
And about the only way you could legally get on a charter flight was if you were a member of a special affinity or interest group that could buy enough seats on an airplane to justify buying all seats on that airplane for that flight.
Doctors took charters. Aluminum siding salesmen booked charters. Soon, just about everyone interested in saving money on air fares was lining up, claiming to be a member of one group or another.
In short order, bogus charter groups were being formed by travel agents and tour operators to get around the group membership regulations. They were eager to group passengers together and earn their profit on the volume of travelers they could generate for a charter flight.
The Game of the Name
As a result, some strange interest groups were formed, with absurd names that bordered on the Encino Bird Watcher and Surrogate Parent Assn., or Submarine Race Watchers of Secaucus, N.J.
But then came the transatlantic fare wars, low-fare carriers (Laker, and now PeoplExpress) and deregulation, and charter flights to popular places in Europe began to dwindle.
In 1977, 729,000 Americans, one in every three people, took charters from the United States to Europe, but by 1981 that number had dropped to 110,000. Charters were also hurt by well-documented stories of charter operators who went bankrupt, overcrowded, late or nonexisting flights and of passengers stranded at remote airports around the world.
But this year, thanks to a general European tourism boom, it's expected that more than half a million of us will charter our way across the Atlantic.
Los Angeles International Airport will be bustling with charter traffic to expected places like London, and some unexpected destinations like Duesseldorf. So will JFK in New York and BWI in Baltimore, with more than 30 charter flights a week this summer to Europe.
Charters Have Grown Up
Dozens of charter operators as well as scheduled airlines are rushing to fill the charter demand.
Many charters have, well, matured. Most are operated like a scheduled airline. But there are still a number of things you should know before booking one.
You should read your charter contract carefully, and make sure that all funds you give to the operator are deposited into a federally insured bank or savings and loan, and into an escrow account.
Also, be sure to check your operator. A reputable travel agent should have no trouble giving you adequate information as to the operator's business track record. If the agent can't, then don't go.
It's also not a bad idea to check the carrier. How long has the airline been in business? What kind of equipment will you be flying? (A charter fare might look very attractive until you find out you're flying on a plane that has a restricted range and the flight will be making a stop or two along the way.)
If you book a charter, remember that many charter operators retain the right of substitution of carriers. What this means is that while you may think you're going to fly to Europe on Pan Am or British Airways, the operator may change your flight at the last minute to another airline.
The Aggravation Factor
Most of the time this doesn't create problems, and more often than not the plane will still depart the United States at the same scheduled time.
But not always. "One of the reasons we don't sell many charters," says Paulette Aaronson of Gateway Travel, in Great Neck, N.Y., "is the aggravation factor. There are dozens of discount fares to Europe. So if you book a charter, for the small additional amount of money you might save, you end up buying a lot of grief."
Recently Aaronson sold a charter to a family that wanted to go from New York to London, then to Paris and Rome. One charter operator offered that exact itinerary on British Airways. By booking the charter, the family would save $800 on air fares. The idea seemed a good one until two days before departure. That's when the charter operator changed airlines from British Airways to Air India.
"The family didn't object to the change," says Aaronson, "but they were a little concerned at the change of plans."
But then the operator called to say that they had changed airlines again. The new carrier: Saudia, the airline of Saudi Arabia.
"That's when these folks freaked out," she reports. "And I started to bitch." Aaronson pleaded, then yelled at the charter operator. "This family was not about to fly on a Saudi airline," she says. "It was a purely emotional reaction."