Is that a light at the end of the tunnel?

lightGood news, fellow travelers: The worst of the travel downturn may be over.

If nothing else, there’s some evidence that the dark days of customer service are history.

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Our friends over at AAA released their end-of-year forecast yesterday. It predicted 87.7 million Americans will be traveling 50 miles or more away from home during the year-end holidays — up 3.8 percent from a year ago. That’s the largest projected increase for any major holiday this year.

A few highlights:

• The number of travelers by automobile is expected to be 77.7 million in 2009 compared to 74.4 million last year, an increase of 4.4 percent.

• The number of travelers by air is expected be 4.2 million compared to 4.1 million in 2008, up 2.9 percent.

• The number of those traveling by “other” means, including, trains, watercraft, buses and multiple-modes of transportation, is expected to be 5.8 million compared to 6.0 million last year.

Last year, the total number of travelers during the year-end holidays was 84.5 million, a decline of 4.7 percent from 2007.

Combine that with the surprising number of emails I received after yesterday’s post on customer service and the holidays, and I think we have reason to be hopeful.

Here’s one from reader Deborah Hansen:

My son David flew on Alaska Airlines from Newark to Anchorage on Dec 13. When he checked in at Newark for flight 11, the check in agent insisted on David checking his hand carry backpack even though it fit in the sizing cage. David objected and said that he couldn’t afford the extra baggage fee on top of the first checked fee with what he was planning to buy for Christmas gifts.

The gate agent waived both baggage fees and said “Merry Christmas”. Pretty nice of Alaska.

Here’s another one from Bill Kwitman:

My wife and I booked non-refundable tickets last summer to Italy on Northwest for a trip leaving 10/14. Two days before our departure, my 90-year-old mother had a major stroke. The next day we called Northwest and canceled our flights, explaining the reason for doing so. The agent at their international desk said that if we provided them with a letter from my mother’s doctor advising that due to her stroke, we were unable to make the trip, we would get a full refund.

A week later, my mom died, so when I got back from the funeral, I sent Northwest a letter with the doctor’s letter and Mom’s death certificate and requested our refund.

We received a full refund within three weeks.

And here’s one from reader Emily Hyndman, whose Thanksgiving flight from Beijing to San Francisco on United Airlines was delayed because of mechanical problems.

I thought I might eventually get a “personalized” apology, maybe a thousand or so miles, or nothing at all. Less than a week later, I received an email with a $250 voucher from United. And a personal apology.

While I got lucky and was scheduled on a flight later that night, most people on the flight ended up spending the night in San Francisco, there weren’t any more flights, it was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. United also paid for their hotels and gave them food vouchers.

United may not have the extra legroom in economy. Their food may not be as good as some of the other airlines, but I never expected to receive such a generous gift from them. My only problem now is decided what to use it for.

Thank you United, I take back all the mean things I said about you during that delay in Beijing.

Now, I agree with commenter Emily, who wondered if all of the rules the airlines were bending should even exist. That’s a valid point. Some of the more customer-friendly airlines (Southwest, JetBlue) don’t charge outrageous change fees and they let you carry one piece of luggage on the plane at no extra cost.

And while I’m not quite ready to declare this a renaissance in customer service — at least for the legacy airlines — I do believe there is reason for hope.

The last few years have been devastating to the travel industry, and especially the big airlines. Low prices alone won’t bring customers back. I think there is a growing realization that you can offer a discounted fare, but if the service is bad, people will avoid your carrier.

Will 2010 be a good year for customer service? It has to be. Things can only get better.

(Photo: Jsome1/Flickr Creative Commons)