Does this blizzard expose the travel industry’s cold heart?

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By Christopher Elliott

An epic blizzard bearing down on the East Coast of the United States today is forcing passengers to ask difficult questions about compassion and the travel industry that supposedly serves them.

It may be even more difficult for travel companies to answer them.

Airlines are waiving their strict ticket change rules in advance of the storm. For example, American Airlines will allow passengers on nonrefundable tickets to make a ticket change without penalties through tomorrow. Other air carriers operating in the affected area are loosening their rules, too. Even notoriously rule-happy Spirit is going a little easier on its customers.

Hotels, car rental companies and other travel suppliers are also waiving their rules on a case-by-case basis, so if you’re traveling today or tomorrow, check with your travel company or agent. There’s a good chance it will let you off the hook if you have to cancel a trip.

And that’s all fine until Wednesday, when everyone reverts to the old rules.

A gold standard tarnished

Here’s the problem: The American travel industry used to be the gold standard for customer service, led by a carefully-regulated airline industry. A generation ago, travel was known for being not only hospitable, but compassionate.

If you needed a ticket changed because of a personal emergency, no problem. A friendly agent would handle it for you, often at no extra charge. Couldn’t make it to your hotel because of a hurricane or because your mom was ill? No worries, an accommodating front-desk employee would cancel your reservation without any penalties.

Customers loved it. They came to expect it from the travel industry. So in the early 1990s, when travel companies began relying on fees for their profits and started to tighten their rules, it took many customers by surprise.

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After 9/11 and the recession the trend accelerated. Today, vast sectors of the travel industry rely on fees for their survival. In 2013 alone, the domestic airlines collected an astounding $2.8 billion in ticket change fees, up from $2.5 billion a year before.

That led to an historic decline in customer satisfaction. Airlines, quite simply, are failing at customer service today. My advocacy team and I get regular complaints about airlines. Hotels aren’t faring much better.

The gold standard is gone. A hall pass won’t change that.

“It looks like compassion,” says Suzanne Fast of today’s rule waivers. “But it isn’t.”

Companies are willing to give up some of the fee revenues “to minimize the snarl of delayed traffic to the extent they can,” she says.

“And it’s good PR. If they can get it portrayed as compassion rather than self-interest, it does little to challenge their contention that the fees are legitimate under normal conditions,” she adds.

How about a little reciprocity?

Perhaps this is a good time to consider what’s right, instead of just what’s profitable.

When the tables are turned, travel companies rarely waive their rules for customers. Say you were hospitalized just before your cruise. The company’s response: Sorry, no refunds. You shoulda bought insurance.

Car broke down on your way to the airport? Not our problem, say airlines. You’re a “no show” and have to pay for a new ticket. (Airlines claim to have what’s called a “flat tire” rule that will put you on the next flight, but it’s more of a myth, from where I’m sitting. No airline has ever actually shown me its “flat tire” policy.)

So as the snow falls today, maybe in a quiet moment, the managers who create and enforce these draconian policies should ask themselves: Why don’t we do this more often? Why don’t we show our customers a little more compassion?

There will be voices within the organization that will tell them, “This will put us at a competitive disadvantage.” They’ll remind them that some passengers will exploit this corporate generosity — the same ones whose “aunt” in Boca Raton conveniently dies every year around spring break.

But maybe there will also be a voice deep within that counters, “No. You’ve lost your way.”

Because, quite frankly, you have, travel industry. You’ve lost your way.

Your customers hate you. The only repeat guests you have are the indentured servants who are hooked on your loyalty programs. (Here is our guide to travel loyalty programs.)

You can do better

Travel companies shouldn’t wait for a reason to show compassion. Every day should be a snow day. Why? Because it’s right. Then, the loyalty doesn’t have to be coerced with worthless points and miles. And you don’t have to become a “hacker” to travel with dignity.

Good service will be given freely because it’s the decent thing to do.

“Treat your customers well and they will be your customers for life,” says Ed Rudow, a consultant who is watching the snow come down in Washington. “Abuse them and they will choose a competitor whenever they can.”

Does the travel industry show enough compassion?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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