Transportation & Logistics

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Airlines Trying to Win Travelers Back with Consumer-Friendly Skies

10 Sep, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The times they are a-changin’ – and that includes in airlines. In order to bring people back to the skies, air carriers have slashed fees and eliminated penalties, all part of a concerted effort to keep travelers from defecting to driving, RVing or taking the train to their destinations (which they are doing, according to statistics).

For those planning sports tournaments, it’s great news. After all, it’s easier to convince athletes and their families to book a flight if the hassle factor is low. Unfortunately, the travel industry is in flux, with both airlines and governments are changing policies by the day. And while the Labor Day weekend saw more than 4.1 million travelers passing through TSA checkpoints (the highest since COVID began), it's a far cry from the 2019 figure, when there were 10.7 million travelers.

In the meantime, the airlines are trying to create more consumer-friendly skies. Here is a synopsis of the steps they have taken and are still taking:

Flexible Cancellation Fees: The advent of COVID has created a need for more flexible booking and cancellation policies among airlines and to date, almost all domestic carriers (there are a few holdouts) have followed suit.

Because policies are continuing to change, it is essential to check with individual carriers at the time reservations are made; however, Forbes keeps this list updated, showing cancellation policies for all major carriers.

Eliminating Change Fees: Southwest never had change fees but now, several other major carriers have announced they will be dropping them. Following United Airlines' announcement to eliminate change fees, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines have followed suit. Hawaiian and Frontier have jumped on the bandwagon as well. (Different carriers have different terms; NerdWallet has an excellent synopsis).

Baggage Fees: Surprisingly, there have not been any recent changes here (Southwest is still the only airline where bags fly free). However, American Airlines announced in May 2019 that it would lower its baggage fees from $150 to $30 for those traveling with sports equipment or musical instruments. The $30 price is the cost of a first checked bag for standard coach fares within the U.S.

The lower fee, it was noted, applies to items like skis, surfboards and bicycles – and each of these items would count as one checked bag. However, items weighing more than 50 pounds are still subject to additional fees, and bulky equipment like hang gliders still costs $150 to check.

CNBC noted that American wasn’t the only airline to reduce the costs of flying with surfboards. The previous October, United Airlines  brought fees to travel with surfboards to and from California in line with the price of a first checked bag: $30. Delta did as well.

Memo to all airlines (except you, Southwest): If you're waiting for the perfect time to eliminate baggage fees entirely, it was yesterday. Get on the stick.

Middle Seats and Masks: Multiple airlines have been blocking out middle seats (which few travelers want) in the interest of social distancing, and many have rules concerning masks. A review of both can be found here.

Having airlines drop extra fees, say industry experts, is the first step toward winning travelers back. The next step, they say, should come from hotels and it should be the news they are dropping resort fees entirely and permanently.

The Points Guy notes“Resort fees, urban fees, season fees, membership fees, urban retreat fees and whatever else the industry will think to call them next need to go. Now. Continuing to charge resort fees at properties with diminished offerings because of COVID-19 is a new low in the resort fee saga. Many beachfront and Las Vegas properties, for example, are still charging full resort fees, even though amenities such as the pool, kids club and fitness center have reduced hours or have closed altogether. Because occupancy remains historically low, now is the perfect time for hotels to give travelers transparent rates, without any hidden fees.

Imagine the publicity boost a national hotel chain would receive if it eliminated resort fees in the name of fair and straightforward pricing. They can — and arguably should — raise average daily room rates to compensate for the lost resort fee, especially as demand increases. Ultimately, travelers should be able to clearly see the all-in rate for a hotel stay and determine if the product (and its amenities) are worth the price.”

For too long, resort fees have been the bane of planners who often will avoid properties that use them, simply in the interest of not having to hear the complaints from those who choose to stay there. And over the years, efforts have been made to curb the use of those fees. Most recently, we saw the Office of the Attorney General of Washington, DC, file a lawsuit against Marriott, citing its “deceptive and misleading practices.” And all the way back in 2016, the FTC stated it would sanction the charges.

It is obvious that if there were ever a time to get rid of resort fees, it’s now. COVID has damaged the travel economy beyond belief, with over half of the jobs in the industry lost; previously, it was estimated that at least one in 10 Americans was employed by or in a job relating to the travel industry.

And, notes, The Points Guy, one only needs to look at the positive press airlines are receiving for eliminating fees and instituting more flexibility in booking and cancellation – and extend that line of thinking to hotels and resorts.

“Hotels can build trust with guests and sell rooms for a fair rate without tacking on frustrating mandatory fees,” notes Richard Kerr in this blog. “In light of the pandemic, things that seemed improbable — or even impossible — six months ago are happening. If an airline like United can shed long-held fees in favor of flexibility and transparency, who’s to say a major hotel chain can’t do the same?”

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