Goodbye to all that

By | December 29th, 1998

Farewell, room service. Adieu, boarding passes. See ya later, legroom.

All three did a disappearing act in 1998, leaving travelers cramped, hungry and irritated. Other perks that went “poof” included peanuts on flights and some mileage rewards.

If you thought 1997 was a bad year for travel – and it was – then 1998 was an awful year. Perhaps the most galling part is that the travel industry told us, with a completely straight face, that these cutbacks were for our own good.

Room service edged closer toward extinction. Before long, that friendly waiter delivering an overpriced meal to your room could be a thing of the past. Close to 75 percent of hotels under construction won’t have restaurants or room service, according to research by PKF Consulting in Atlanta. The percentage of hotels that offer dining options slipped by 3 percent to 35 percent in 1998.

Why? Cutting expenses helps properties keep room rates down. And we want cheaper rooms, right? But that’s not the only reason. “Hotels without room service have higher profit margins – an average of 50 percent,” says PKF’s Robert Mandelbaum. “A hotel with a restaurant has an average of a 25 percent profit margin.”

Airlines zapped advance-boarding passes, forcing their best customers to brave long ticket counter lines. Security was one of the primary reasons behind losing the early tickets. But at what cost?

“It’s a horror for us,” says Barbara Russell, a publishing executive from Merrimack, N.H. “The amount of disfavor that airlines create amongst business travelers will be remembered.”

Question to the airlines: When’s the last time a frequent flier hijacked a plane?

Related story:   Rooms and boards

Legroom got scarce last year. As several airlines “remodeled” their forward cabins to add more first-class seats, they pushed the ones in steerage class closer together.

Only TWA publicly owned up to doing it, but I’ve been getting anecdotal reports from passengers who say the pitch between economy-class seats has shrunk way past the barely-tolerable 30-inch mark on several carriers.

Airline executives say they’re doing us a favor. Vacationers get the cheap seats they demand and frequent fliers get more premium seating. But that’s ridiculous. Conditions in sardine class are now nothing less than uncivilized, while the few new first-class seats are impossible to secure unless you’re a quadruple-platinum frequent flier.

Result: a planeload of squished tourist and miffed business travelers. The most obvious beneficiary of this mile-high game of musical chairs are the airlines, because they get to add pricier seats in the front while keeping the inventory in the back. It’s your classic win-lose scenario.

Finally, if you like to collect miles you’re out of luck. Most of the big car-rental companies ended their participation in some airline mileage programs this year in an effort to – you guessed it – cut costs.

“They haven’t abandoned the programs,” notes car rental expert Warren Lieberman. “They’re just getting a little bit more selective about who they’re dealing with.”

Funny, but renting a car won’t get any cheaper as a result. I guess what the car rental companies should have said was that they were cutting their costs. Prices are actually expected to rise in 1999, meaning that we’ll get less for more.

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Read enough? Yeah, me too. I take no pleasure in recalling what we’ve lost this year.

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