5 things that need to be fixed in travel now

By | January 9th, 2017

No one likes to be wrong, especially when you write the best darned travel column in American journalism. So when a flight attendant flagged an inaccuracy in one of my recent stories, my heart skipped a beat.

“I just wanted to tell you it’s against the law to photograph a working flight attendant and also against the law to video any working crew member at any time,” she wrote. “Thank you for correcting this information.”

Uh-oh. For years, I’ve advised travelers to take pictures and videos when something goes wrong, including on a plane. Was I incorrect?

I’ll have the answer in a second. But fixing errors — that’s actually a worthy topic. The holiday travel season is near, and while a lot of folks are on the road, I know I’m not the only one asking: How do you fix what’s wrong about travel?

Make no mistake, the industry is broken. Badly. More than 17% of respondents to a new Aspect Software survey said they’d stopped doing business with a travel company in 2016 because of poor customer service, a 45% increase from last year. It’s a trend that Joe Gagnon, Aspect’s chief customer strategy officer, calls “alarming.” If it continues, the industry will soon overtake the telecom and cable industry as a leader in bad customer service.

But the damage can be repaired. Here’s how:

1. Eliminate ridiculous fees

There seems to be no escape from the fees and surcharges. Though some are technically avoidable, most are not. Travel companies used to apologize for them, but recently, as the profits began to pour in, they’ve gone silent. “Stop with the nickel-and-dime fees already,” says Louis Altman, a frequent traveler who runs a telecommunication company in Portsmouth, N.H. “Why do I need to pay to pick a seat? Why do I need to pay to bring my stuff with me? I know fees are a massive profit center, but ugh — stop it!”

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How to fix it: Travel companies could start including these “unbundled” amenities if they wanted to. They just don’t want to.

2. End the status games

If you think the division of the classes is un-American, try flying. The cabin is clearly and unapologetically divided between haves and have-nots. “I’d like to eliminate the class system the airlines use based on status,” says Angela Berardino, a frequent flier who works for a communication agency in Denver. “The drama and stress it causes to secure a seat, to line up to board — it honestly makes travel much, much more stressful. And I’m someone who has status on multiple legacy carriers.”

How to fix it: Maybe it’s time to scrap the loyalty programs that efficiently separate the elite customers from the rest.

3. No more lies

If you travel, it’s hard to escape the web of lies spun around each product and service. “Review sites are easily bamboozled,” says Tom Sheehan, who runs a tour company based in Gainesville, Fla. “Competitors can sign up under multiple pseudonyms and write scathing reviews about their competition. Dissatisfied customers embellish the issues to seek revenge on the property they feel let them down.” Simply put, many user-generated review sites are compromised.

How to fix it: If these enormous travel sites took just one extra step to verify that a reviewer stayed at a hotel — a photo of a receipt might do it — it would dramatically cut the amount of fake reviews.

4. Keep your word

It seems so simple: Quote a rate, and that’s what you charge. No “resort” fee, no extras, no surprises. Howard Zoufaly, a business consultant from Broomfield, Colo., says hotels don’t always honor their commitments. One property, which offered “free” breakfast, recently made him pay. The reason? He stayed on a weekend. “It was false advertising,” he says. “Consumers can’t depend on the travel industry to keep their word.”

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How to fix it: Do what you say. How hard can that be?

5. Treat us like humans

If you’ve flown in an economy class airline seat lately, then you know exactly what I mean. It’s cramped, and often the service is degrading. Kevin Farris, an account manager for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia, wonders why airlines can’t offer a humane amount of personal space. “I just want to sit comfortably,” he says. In an industry built on hospitality, no one should ever be treated like that.

How to fix it: How about federally mandated minimum seat standards in economy class?

Wouldn’t it be great if one newspaper column could end customer-unfriendly fees and make the industry fairer, more honest — even more humane? In the meantime, I’m happy to fix my own mistakes. I asked my flight attendant friend to send me a copy of the law that said you can’t photograph employees. She checked and discovered she was incorrect. There’s no such law. Phew.

Who’s already fixed — and who isn’t?

Hotels. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), Hilton and Marriott rank highest with scores of 81 and 80 out of 100, respectively — and are the least in need of fix. The most: Wyndham (70) and Motel 6 (65).

Airlines. JetBlue and Southwest are tied with a score of 80 out of 100. The lowest: Allegiant (65) and Spirit (62).

Chain restaurants. Looking for good food and service? The ACSI recommends Cracker Barrel (83), Texas Roadhouse (82) or LongHorn Steakhouse (82). Chili’s and Denny’s get the bottom scores of 75 and 74, respectively.

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  • sirwired

    “I just wanted to tell you it’s against the law to photograph a working flight attendant and also against the law to video any working crew member at any time,”

    There is NO such law; there’s a haphazardly-enforced rule that some airlines impose, and it’s within their powers to toss you off the aircraft at the next stop for violating it. The plane is private property, and this is well within their rights, even if it’s annoying and only enforced when a passenger films a crewmember doing something the crewmember would prefer not be filmed.

    Now, if they ask, and you refuse, technically you are “disobeying crewmember instructions”, but I’m pretty sure nobody has ever actually had to pay a fine or even get arrested for a crewmember power trip.

  • Jeff W.

    “Eliminate ridiculous fees”

    This is certainly a mixed bag and what is ridiculous is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. Part of it is our fault. We looked up fares on some OTA and saw that airline X was offering a fare that was cheaper than airline Y by a few bucks. It shows up first on the list the race to bottom started. Fees were added to “make up” for the lost revenue. Then the airlines got greedy and realized that there was more money to be had in fees than airfares.

    Are seat fees unreasonable? Everyone knows aisles and windows are more valuable than middles. And the front is more desirable than the back. The technology advanced far enough where the airlines could price this rather efficiently. It is not so much that you have to pay for a seat, just pay extra for a preferred one.

  • Hanope

    I don’t know who doesn’t like “elite” status here. Everytime I’ve posted some complaint about how those with “elite” status get preferred treatment over us non-elities, I get a dozen replies from people who apparently love it (likely because they are “it”) and tell me to ‘know my place.’

  • Lindabator

    I have clients who spend more time in the air then at home, so if they get “elite” status to make their trips more streamlined, I think they’ve earned it. Fly once a year, and why should you expect the same perks? I have no problem with elites boarding first, getting better seats, etc. Believe me – they’ve earned it

  • Jeff W.

    “End the status games”

    Never going to happen. Not sure of your example passenger there, but elite status tends to reduce stress not add to it. Besides that, many of the elite passengers are business travelers. People who travel for/to work. People who tend to pay more for their fares. While we all like to think that the airlines (or any company) treat all customers the same, the reality is that if you pay more, you get more. And the perks that come with elite travel are important to business and therefore the airlines will keep it in place.

  • Jeff W.

    And just to round out, yes all companies should not lie, keep their word, and treat us like people. Can’t really argue about those.

  • Alan Gore

    I loved that flat-out lie you got from the FA about filming crew. Airline people are so touchy about giving up the smallest part of their absolute power that they can sound really authoritative when they lie to you, whether it’s about their sainted Rules or when they describe the two guys sitting on the wing with a toolbox as “weather.” That’s why I would like to see a standard FAA reporting procedure, with sworn statements by all crew and pax involved, made mandatory for any passenger ejection.

    I don’t share your total disdain for loyalty programs, though. If you are careful about analyzing programs and patronize one company enough to make their program worth your while, they can save your bacon when trouble strikes.

  • LostInMidwest

    I am not sure banning fees would do much without starting to charge for CARRY-ON. Dropping baggage fees and charging for carry-on luggage would do miracles for more civilized environment on board, that is for sure.

    I do have status and board immediately after first/business. However, just because someone has the status doesn’t mean they know how to behave. Removing unnecessary luggage from the cabin would make it a great step towards more human experience. That and the minimum seat size requirements, of course.

  • Annie M

    I could swear I already read this story.

  • Annie M

    If they are willing to pay for it, why should anyone begrudge them?

  • Pickwix

    I totally agree. The carry-on wars have become ridiculous.

    Solution: ONE piece of regulation size carry-on and ENFORCE the carry-on rules. Man, you’ll see man-purses become high fashion in no time! The Second REGULATION SIZE carry-on has a $25 fee. (you are paying for the convenience of not having to wait for luggage on arrival). To prevent blowback for the airlines… make carry-on rules as to size and number of articles part of (FAA?) rules. Checked baggage involves a bit more work for the airlines, so for a SMALL (regulation to be est’d) piece of luggage charge a nominal $5 or make it free.

    And while I’m on the subject of being king of solutions of airline nuisances – prevent seat recline in steerage (cattle) class. Only allow seat recline in Premium steerage and above, Of course if the airlines made seat pitch about 4″ larger and a coupla inches wider ………… but that’s a ridiculous dream even for a king….

    Whew! I’m feeling better already.

  • ctporter

    ” 2. End the status games”. That still will not make each and every seat the same. Locations near the boarding door, by a window, on the aisle, near the bathrooms, away from the bathrooms, away from a bulkhead will STILL be there and are not equally preferred by all flyers. What exactly should the criteria be for getting access to those very limited seat of your preference? How is this any different than getting a free cuppa coffee, donut, etc from a local restaurant or coffee shop after xx purchases?Deleting status actually sounds more like a jealous rant than any effective effort to improve travel. You do not “have” to fly, there are trains and travel by auto that can be arranged. To take advantage of the lower cost and quicker time to fly comes with some caveats. If you do NOT care where you sit, or when you board, or if you do not need to carry along with you items that will not fit under the seat in front of you, and if you have the ability to book enough in advance, it is possible to get a very cheap price of a ticket.

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