There was both good news and bad news for American travelers in 2017, but still lingering are legitimate concerns that certain trends will continue and even worsen this year. In some ways, the image of a paying airline passenger named Dr. David Dao being bloodied and beaten and dragged off an airplane was the watershed event that set the tone.
Here’s a summary of several key issues, and advice on how consumers can respond.
Fewer consumer protections
I addressed this last month with “A plea for transparency on airline fees,” when I noted that in December the U.S. Department of Transportation abruptly withdrew proposed rulemakings that would assist consumers to obtain real-time pricing of full airfares and fees when shopping for airline seats. Subsequently, major U.S. airlines and their trade organization have been lobbying the administration to modify or repeal dozens of rules protecting fliers. This story could potentially impact airline passengers more negatively than anything else that occurs in 2018. The need for consumers to shop around when booking travel is more critical than ever.
Widespread reduction of Amtrak routes
Those who love riding the rails saw their travel plans thrown off track last year when President Trump’s budget called for drastic cuts to Amtrak’s budget and elimination of service to more than 220 cities and communities in 23 states nationwide, including venerable long-distance routes. These proposed cuts have not yet been enacted by Congress, and the National Association of Railroad Passengers has launched the “Rally for Trains” campaign to enlist public support. The good news is that many passengers are responding with their wallets, as Amtrak notched record revenues of $205 million in November 2017, the best month in company history.
Threats to safety
Once again we saw no fatal accidents on U.S. carriers last year, which is great news indeed. Yet despite the domestic airline industry’s safety record, concerns continue to grow about factors that can adversely affect that record:
• Outsourcing of aircraft maintenance has continued, raising questions about oversight and security.
• Some members of Congress are attempting to weaken stricter standards for regional carrier pilots, which resulted from a hard fight by family members of those killed on the Continental Express/Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo in 2009.
• Internal Federal Aviation Administration documents indicate a Chinese supplier installed counterfeit aircraft parts on Boeing aircraft, again raising questions about oversight.
Hotel ‘resort fees’ continue unabated
Determining the cost of those travel fees can be annoying enough — but what of the fees themselves? Whether it’s roadside service when renting a car or beverage tabs on cruise lines, nickel-and-diming may have been perfected by the airlines but it has spread to all parts of the travel industry. In the hotel sector, one of the most insidious consumer deceptions is something called “drip pricing,” which often takes the form of unexpected MANDATORY charges such as resort fees, which Travelers United terms “deceptive, unfair and wrong.” (In the past the Federal Trade Commission agreed.) Currently the consumer advocacy organization advises 47 attorneys general are investigating these fees, which can range from $20 to $40 nightly at hotels and up to $75 nightly at resorts. You can learn more and offer support at the “End Hotel and Resort Fees” page.
In the wake of Dr. Dao being dragged off United Express Flight 3411 in Chicago last April, the issue of reservations not being honored in the travel industry became a viral topic. Subsequently I represented Consumers Union as the only passenger advocate to testify alongside five airline executives in a Congressional hearing, and suggested that domestic airline Contracts of Carriage “give all the rights to the airlines, and precious few rights to their passengers,” before calling for a meaningful Passenger Bill of Rights to address this and other issues. But as I noted in a November column that addressed car rentals, hotels, rail and buses, un-honored reservations aren’t restricted to airlines. Learn more and be aware — BEFORE you book.
Uber and Lyft: Security breaches and ‘surge pricing’
Last May I wrote about the financial risks of using Uber or Lyft with “Liability guide: Know your risks on the road.” But other troubles at both on-demand transportation companies continued throughout 2017. First a security breach surfaced after Uber paid hackers $100,000 to delete stolen data about 57 million customers. While Uber dealt with other challenges, including sexual harassment revelations, rival Lyft made headlines of its own with charges that prices surged above 500 percent during last year’s Super Bowl. Bottom line? Consider how the lack of regulatory oversight can affect you the next time you hail a ride.
Tighter airline seats
That Congressional hearing about airline service last May that I referenced above? To underscore how tone-deaf U.S. airline executives can be, that very week American Airlines announced a reduction in economy-class legroom seat pitch down to just 30 inches, and even 29 inches in some cases. For years I’ve been writing here about how airline seats are shrinking. Think I’m being unfair with the tone-deaf charges? Consider that a recent article detailed how American’s new Boeing 737 MAX jets have just 30 inches of seat pitch, reduced recline and smaller lavatories. Yet when American CEO Doug Parker was asked about this by his company’s flight attendants, he responded that he hasn’t even flown on the aircraft — in any class. Meanwhile, keep in mind that airlines in North America have been posting the highest net profits in the world, forecasted at $16.4 billion this year; in fact, they have generated more than half of all airline profits worldwide for the past three years. Since economy-class legroom isn’t likely to increase anytime soon, research your seating options in advance, such as at SeatGuru.com.
Distracted driving still a menace
There were 37,461 fatalities on American highways in 2016, the latest year for statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, resulting in a 15.6% increase over 2015. But one particularly disturbing note is that 3,450 of those deaths were due to distracted driving, which has become ubiquitous in recent years. Even the percentages of those who confess to engaging in such practices — undoubtedly nowhere near the total number of distracted drivers — are quite staggering: A Consumer Reports survey in October 2017 found 41% of drivers admitted they had texted behind the wheel, and 8% acknowledged watching videos. What’s worse, there is growing evidence that technology can increase rather than decrease fatal accidents, as new cars debut more and more high-tech gizmos on dashboards. In a report on distracted driving, Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, stated, “Most Americans recognize risky drivers on the roadways, but they are not adopting safer behaviors themselves.” And as I noted in September, one of the most nagging unsafe behaviors is the failure to buckle up on the road, so be proactive.