Let me just clarify a couple things. Cruise air/air deviation and how it works behind the scenes was explained to me by an airline industry rep at an industry conference four years ago. For the example, she used LAX/MIA, both cruise air and air deviation. She was also an AA rep, so the following reflect AA routings. I thought the analogy was great and easy to understand:
Imagine you have 4 stacks of cards in front of you, each containing 30 cards. The 30 cards represent the allotment the cruise line bought from the airline at consolidator rates.
Stack one is LAX/MIA nonstop. 27 request air deviation-nonstop to MIA. Stack one is now down to 3 cards and the 27 pax paid the same price as "regular" cruise air (where you don't know what you are getting until 30-60 days out).
Stack two is LAX/DFW/MIA. Again, 27 people request deviation, same scenario. Pax accept one stopper at their choice of times.
Stack three is LAX/ORD/MIA. Again 27 people request deviation-ditto
Stack four contains these tickets-LAX/SEA, LAX/ORD, LAX/DFW, LAX/JFK, ORD/JFK, ORD/MIA, JFK/MIA
20 additional pax request air deviation-want LAX/MIA nonstop
3 people get air deviation at the same price as cruise air, 17 have to be booked on "free call" tickets. These are NOT the same as the original 30 tickets. They are generally booked in Q or O class (the lowest, generally available AA class) IF there are tickets available in those classes. If there are no tickets available to the cruise line in those classes, then AA will make available tickets in higher fare classes. Please note that Q and O class tickets are HIGHER priced than the "regular" consolidator class air deviation tickets, so the 17 pax will definitely pay a higher price than "regular" cruise air pax or deviation pax with consolidator class tickets.
IF and this is a BIG IF, the cruise line/airline contract ALLOWS the cruise line to purchase more nonstop tickets, these are FULLY ENDORSABLE tickets, the same as purchasing direct from AA. Depending on time of year and demand, you may be told there are NO air deviation tickets available.
What does the example tell us: Quite a few of the air deviation pax are booked on consolidator class fares. These are group rates given under contract from the airline to the cruise line. The airline states "you will pay us $200.00 per ticket. We don't care what you sell it for". That is how ALL consolidator tickets work. However, there are some VERY stringent restrictions on these types of tickets. USUALLY-very large change fees, if a change is allowed at all, and NON ENDORSABLE tickets (they have no value to another airline).
So most of the pax who requested air deviation are still using consolidator class tickets. If there is a problem, depending on the goodwill of the airline/cruise line, you may or may not (most likely) be put on another carrier to reach your destination.
To be placed on another carrier with a consolidator ticket, the originating carrier has to pay the flying carrier IN CASH-there is no tit for tat exchanging seats, as is common with endorsable tickets. With most airlines in financial trouble, most likely the airline will NOT pay for a ticket on another carrier. And Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue for the most part DO NOT participate in tit for tat exchanges with any carrier, but you will not find cruise lines buying those tickets.
The few lucky people who paid extra have fully endorsable tickets, good on any airline the originating carrier has agreements with and seats available. But they paid EXTRA. They could have booked their own seats and saved money.
What happens to the "regular" cruise air pax? See the remnants of piles 2 and 3? See pile 4???
That is what is left. So somehow, the cruise line has to get those pax from LAX to Miami. Six lucky people will get a one stopper, either ORD or DFW. The rest-Take a combination of cards-lets say LAX/SEA/ORD/JFK/MIA. The cruise line has now fulfilled their obligation to get you to the ship. And because the cruise line does not put the flights together until AFTER final payment, regular cruise air pax are left with PILE 4.
It does not matter that it will take you 12 hours to get to the cruise and you had to leave home at 2:00AM to arrive in MIA at 4:00PM for a cruise that departs at 6:00PM. OOOPS!!! Just missed the connection at ORD. If things weren't bad enough already, you just missed your cruise. Hope the next port stop is within a day and seats on the next flight are available.
This was very hard to write down. It is much easier to tell it in person. Hope it made sense and clarified some issues!!!