What happened to my travel industry – and how do I get it back?


Glen Brewer is an unashamed railroad enthusiast. He runs a website that specializes in 19th century trains. And that made his email to me about his recent flight so noteworthy.

Unlike most of us, who reflexively book an airline ticket when we need to travel long distances, Brewer prefers the train. He comes from a family of railroad aficionados. He still remembers the tales his father told him of catching the Twentieth Century Limited from Chicago to New York on business, just after WWII.

His story made me ask a question that we seem to have stopped trying to answer: What, exactly, happened to our travel industry, and is there a way to get it back?

Brewer recalls the old trains, with their attention to detail and high service standards. They weren’t just better in many ways, but also more convenient.

Consider his recent trip from Denver to Memphis on Frontier Airlines.

“In 1892, when our house was built in Denver, we could have walked half a block to the Denver City Cable Railway and taken a cable car to Union Station for our journey all the way to downtown Memphis,” he says. “Someday in the future, we may be able to ride a lowly bus to the station, a spartan light rail train to the airport, an airplane to somewhere near Memphis, and finally, a taxi to the actual city. But not yet.”

Today, a taxi to Denver International Airport costs almost as much as his plane ticket.

Instead, says Brewer, “after the hell of being herded through security screening, and a long wait, we rode in an appropriately named Airbus – the only honest advertising I observed.”

He continues,

I sat in my cramped, uncomfortable, claustrophobic, extra-priced seat staring at the bulkhead, several rows ahead, which read: “More Choice. More Perks. More Savings. Flyfrontier.com”.

This is apparently what passes for 21st century airline humor.

My wife and I had paid extra for the legroom, but I was stuck in the row behind these absurd premium seats and had to ask an old, surly, officious and rude “stewardess” (i.e., on-board sales agent) for a correction.

She unapologetically deferred to the on-ground manager, who only grudgingly authorized me to move forward to a dreaded center seat.

In front of me there was a tiny TV screen with a place to slide your credit card. Despite the fact that there were three crew members in the cockpit and four in the cabin (not counting two uniformed deadheads occupying premium priced seats — four inches of extra legroom), the only choices cost extra except for a small plastic cup of water offered only once.

The only other perk was the fact that credit card sliders have yet to be installed on the toilet compartment.

After takeoff, I watched the on-board sales agents leisurely standing at the front of the “bus” drinking airline coffee before blocking the aisle with their sales cart to sell drinks. Then they attempted to sell airline credit cards which would afford the purchaser extra Frontier miles.

Extra miles indeed! I never want to have that experience ever again.

All this contrasts sharply with his last Amtrak journey on the Coast Starlight several years ago, where the crew went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, and the train actually arrived early. Sure, it was only a shadow of the late pre-Amtrak train service he once experienced, but at least there was still a culture of service.

On Frontier, there was none.

Airline enthusiasts may counter that someone like Brewer is coming from the wrong place — a very outdated place. After all, look at the progress. You can fly to a place like Memphis for a fraction of a luxury train fare, and in a fraction of the time. The missing trolley, the remote international airport, the security hassles — those are all minor inconveniences. What’s more, the airline crowd might say, today’s airlines are finally profitable after a long period of consolidation and downsizing.

In other words, quit your complaining.

Something tells me, though, that Brewer isn’t so upset about the infrastructure issues and the flight problems as he is about the way airlines see themselves in 2014. They aren’t in the service business or the hospitality business. They are at their core transportation companies, efficiently moving their human cargo from point “A” to point “B” while creating additional ancillary revenue opportunities for the company’s shareholders.

When did that change? Was it airline deregulation? The advent of yield-management systems? Or, perhaps more troublingly, was it us? Did travelers stop caring about service in favor of a bargain airfare?

Many of these questions can be debated. But one can’t: We have lost something, no question about it. It’s an essential part of our travel industry that made us the envy of the world. The smiling service we once counted on has been replaced with a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude from the crew. Even the airline’s “best” customers — the folks lucky enough to score an upgrade with their worthless miles — know these airlines can’t get much worse.

“Have a nice day,” can be an insult. “Buh-bye,” an epithet. Yeah, we get it.

I’m afraid the service culture that defined the American travel industry may be gone forever. I hope I’m wrong.

Is the travel industry a better place than it was a generation ago?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend