Your turn! The other side explains why we’re so wrong

I’m frequently accused of using this site as a bully pulpit, which is, of course, completely true.

I leverage this little corner of cyberspace to advocate for travelers who don’t have the clout of an elite-level frequent flier or the power of a corporate travel department to support them when they’re on the road.

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Still, there’s something to be learned from listening to the other side — the folks responsible for inventing the fees and silly rules you have to put up with, the ones whose elite status affords them god-like treatment, the people who, let’s face it, don’t see the world the same way we do.

I don’t normally hand the mike over to them, for the simple reason that these people have their own forums. Not only do they control immense budgets with which to buy advertising and hire pricey Washington lobbyists, or have access to well-trafficked online bulletin boards in which to commiserate, but my corporate critics have also paid off a good number of my colleagues with favors and free trips. The resulting travel stories are as uncritical as they are uninteresting — which, in the end, renders them unreadable.

In this world, the company — not the customer — is always right. Fees, surcharges and wacky hidden rules are there for your own good. You get what you pay for, so if you snagged a deal on that hotel room or airline ticket, then it’s your fault if something goes wrong. It’s also perfectly acceptable to send the have-nots who lack platinum cards and fancy rollaboard luggage to the purgatory in the back of the plane, while they, the privileged few, are afforded every imaginable creature comfort in first class.

Hey, who ever said life was fair?

While I think these industry apologists are terribly misguided, it’s important to note that when I encounter the opposition, they are almost always polite, if not downright likeable. So as we dissect the other side’s views, I want to be very clear about this: My criticism is aimed at the ideas, not the people making the arguments.

Love the resort employee, hate the resort fee. Almost every time I write about any kind of fee, I get an indignant response from an airline or hotel employee, insisting that I just don’t understand. “Don’t you get it?” they insist. “We have a business to run.”

The latest was a rant by an Orlando-area hotel employee that landed in my “in” box after I ripped hotels who charged mandatory resort fees. He explained that at his condo-hotel property, mandatory resort fees are essential because they cover certain services like the “free” shuttle to the theme parks. The property also offers high-speed Internet connection for guests, and the resort fee pays for newspaper delivery and local phone calls.

What’s more, his hotel can’t just raise rates or charge separately for these services, since it would be impractical from an accounting point of view. “Your article and many of those written by consumer travel advocates, create a lot of animosity between the traveling public and lodging industry,” he added.

His opinion is wrong on many levels, but by golly, he’s entitled to it.

What we can learn: No, it’s not that mandatory resort fees are sometimes justified. They’re never justified. What isn’t justified is any kind of animosity by a guest toward a hotel employee. These workers don’t set these unpopular policies. Don’t beat them up for it.

Shame on me for calling you an airline! The car rental industry bristled when I compared it to the fee-intoxicated airline business in a recent column. Bob Barton, president of the American Car Rental Association, issued a point-by-point rebuttal of my story, which, alas, can’t be published in its entirety for space reasons.

“We are far from perfect, and there is always room for improvement, but to suggest we are remotely coming close to what the airlines are doing is shameful,” he says. “We do not charge you to put your bags in the trunk. We are not going to charge you to put a bag next to you on the seat. We do not charge you to use the entertainment system or require you to buy headphones if you do not have your own.”

Fair enough. No one is claiming rental cars and airlines are identical, but I can understand Barton’s desire not to be lumped in with the a business that’s all but forgotten customer services. Still, there are some striking similarities, don’t you think?

What we can learn: Barton’s comments suggest the travel industry is sensitive to its reputation of serving itself rather than its customers. I believe people like him, and the industry he represents, want to prove us wrong. I’m willing to give him that opportunity. I think we all should.

Who are you calling unfair? Of course, when you criticize airlines, they may think you have something against them (for the record, I don’t – I fly all the time). “Every industry has rules that people think are unfair, but if they understood the reasoning behind them, they wouldn’t feel so screwed over,” wrote one indignant airline employee after I criticized airlines for some of their more irrational pricing practices. “When I return something to a store after 30 days, why can I only get store credit? A re-stocking fee? Why do I have to pay a fee to break my cell phone contract?”

In other words, why am I picking on airlines when other businesses also do the same thing – charge fees for silly things like restocking and breaking a cell phone contract? The answer: Because this is a travel column. (I happily demolish other fees on my general consumer advocacy site, On Your Side.)

The airline employee then helpfully tried to explain the reasoning behind all of the ticketing troubles I mentioned in my story, which, to be honest, just confused me further. Which is to say, I understand that there’s a business reason for these counter-intuitive pricing practices, but I’m still trying to see the logic in it.

What we can learn: I’m as troubled as ever by the way airlines price their tickets, and think some of it should be illegal. But that’s beside the point. At the end of the day, these bizarre practices support an entire industry, and a fix would mean finding a better way of charging for air travel. Which, alas, is a few steps above my pay-grade as a travel columnist.

As a matter of fact, you do belong in the back of the plane. No columns draw more hate mail than my occasional rants about class wars at 36,000 feet. Elite-level fliers are shocked that I dared to criticize some of them for their boorish behavior, disregard for the rules and insistence on being treated better than the rest of us. How could I level such criticisms at the airline’s best customer?

“I’m fed up with you,” exclaimed one reader, who saw the air travel experience from a different perspective; specifically, the vantage point afforded by a leather first-class seat. “Your article on elite fliers seems just as arrogant as the complaints made by some elites.”

Oddly, he proceeded to agree with most of the points I made in the story, stopping only to say that elites do deserve better treatment. “Elites are very valuable customers for airlines, they fly frequently and are mostly loyal to their respective airlines, and therefore deserve some better treatment than, say, some cheapskate who paid $100 for a seat in economy class,” he adds.

The email was actually typical of the kind I get from the elite traveler: Telling me I’m all wrong, then agreeing with most of what I say, but adding that really, they do deserve to be in first class and I don’t.

And perhaps they do belong up front. But that doesn’t mean the poor saps in the back deserve to suffer, either.

What we can learn: Power and privilege can corrupt even the nicest air travelers. When they do, we shouldn’t blame the elites who have lost their bearings, but the airlines who have corrupted them. Who knew travel could turn us into this?

Listening to all of this criticism, it might be easy to conclude that I have it all wrong – that fees and surcharges are necessary, that travel companies are inherently good, that the system works. But a closer look reveals a travel industry that knows it needs to work on its image, to better explain (or change) its practices and that the system is about as broken as it gets.

Put differently, we know we’re right. They know we’re right.

Now, how do we fix it?

(Photo: Bob Fo rnal/Flickr Creative Commons)