2014 Wish List: Travel Improvements We’d Like To See
If you had the power to change the travel industry, what action would you take?More comfortable airline seats? Improved hotel amenities? Fewer car rental taxes and surcharges? Simplified cruise pricing? Improved bus depots? Better rail passes? Friendlier service employees? More considerate fellow travelers? Better access for those with disabilities?
Fewer fees? Lower fees? Better-labeled fees? No fees?
Here are six items high on my personal wish list:
• More transparent travel pricing. In recent years a travel technology paradox has emerged—the better the booking tools, the harder it’s become to obtain full pricing and fee transparency in some cases. Everyone knows the airlines have enthusiastically embraced ancillary revenue fees, but in recent years all travel sectors—including hotels, rental cars, cruises and vacation packages—have “unbundled” their pricing, making it harder than ever to comparison shop and budget the full cost of a trip. And as I wrote here in April, an initiative from the International Air Transport Association called the New Distribution Capability has the potential to make travel shopping even more complex, as Bart Jansen detailed in USA TODAY.
• Greater airline competition… I’ve opposed the recent wave of airline mergers, because I believe that for consumers, such consolidation leads to a decrease in service and an increase in fares. In fact, on behalf of Consumers Union I testified against the US Airways-American Airlines union prior to its ultimate approval. But let’s be very clear. Travel executives and Wall Street analysts are so passionate about mergers and acquisitions because they mean fewer companies will compete, and when you translate the corporate-speak about “yields” and “market share,” what it really means is that fewer competitors equal higher fares. These days, there are far too few instances of airlines engaging in robust, head-to-head competition, such as Delta encroaching on Alaska Airlines’ hub in Seattle, while Alaska expands at Delta’s hub in Salt Lake City. The more airlines battle with each other over service and price, the better it is for passengers.
• …And hotel and car rental competition. As I noted back in April, rapid consolidation has overtaken all aspects of travel, not just the airlines. Consider that nine of the top hotel chains—Accor, Carlson Hospitality, Choice Hotels, Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott International, Starwood and Wyndham Hotel Group—control a total of 103 brands. Meanwhile, the U.S. car rental industry has effectively devolved into just three mega-companies: Avis Budget Group (Avis, Budget, Zipcar); Enterprise Holdings (Alamo, Enterprise, National); and Hertz (Dollar, Hertz, Thrifty). At least the effects of airline consolidation have generated Congressional, regulatory, and media debate—albeit to little benefit for consumers. But it’s time we all showed more concern over the rest of the shrinking travel industry, so competition can thrive and customers can benefit.
• Safe, sane, sensible electronics policies. For weeks now, conflicting media reports have detailed how the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission and various U.S. airlines have eased restrictions on personal electronic devices in airplane cabins. New regulations affect certain devices on certain aircraft types on certain airlines at certain altitudes, creating the confusion I recently witnessed in Denver when a passenger (wrongly) lectured a flight attendant on what was acceptable (he regretted sitting next to me, after my own lecture to him). But safety first. In fact, the FAA itself acknowledges in this FAQ that safety risks have not been completely eliminated: “There are reports of suspected interference to communication and navigations systems in both the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System and the FAA’s Service Difficulty Reporting system. The FAA believes the rulemaking committee report and associated FAA guidance can minimize possible interference.” Then there are the unresolved social issues associated with extended cellphone calls in flight. Seems we still have a way to go to determine which devices should be allowed, and when.
• Better and cheaper connectivity—at sea level. For all the talk about electronic usage in the skies, connectivity issues still thrive on land and at sea. The Web abounds with complaints about outdated technologies and exorbitant fees at hotels, despite surveys indicating that WiFi is the most important amenity. As for cruise ships, communications fees can easily run into triple digits for a single sailing. Connecting quickly. Easily. Inexpensively. It’s about time, yes?
• Cruise protections—with teeth. As I pointed out in July, this year the Cruise Lines International Association unveiled the International Cruise Line Passenger Bill of Rights. The industry’s trade organization deserves kudos for offering protections to U.S. passengers who purchase cruises in North America through any of CLIA’s 26 member lines. But some consumer advocates have rightly noted these promises are not codified under law, leaving passengers vulnerable.
Hearing from you
So what changes would you like to see in travel in 2014? We’d like to hear from you in the comments section, and may include your thoughts in next month’s column.