• Bait-and-switch regulations should be applied to travel industry advertising.
The new year is a time of hope and optimism that things will get better. But I write about the travel industry, and I try to be accurate; I know, deep in my heart, that most of the issues we deal with daily are just going to get worse. So this week, I thought I would try to bridge the gap between unbridled optimism and the reality that little will change in 2013. Here is a sampling of industry matters I think need to be addressed but probably won't:
Yes, you can fly to Cleveland for $39 or cruise to the Caribbean for $399, but the "priced from" industry norm is deceiving at best and, when the price advertised is clearly not available, likely illegal.
With the notable exception of the DOT cracking down on deceptive airline websites, bait-and-switch ads are OK in the travel industry. We just don't see any level of prosecution or fines. That's because the travel agent "sales force" is there to explain to the consumer all the ways the ad is misleading, along with the fact that the $399 price didn't include port charges, fuel surcharges, airfare or insurance or that it applies to just one cabin, under the crew bar.
Travel advertising should show a range of available pricing or a median cost for the program being advertised. Let's stop forcing travel agents to explain to their clients that travel marketers will lie when they can get away with it. • Rental car firms should simply fill the gas tank when a car is returned and charge the going rate for gas in the area.
Haven't we created enough "find gas in the minutes before returning my rental car" anxiety? It can be so simple. Just fill the car up at the going rate when it is returned and place the gas charge on the client's credit card. Everything is agreed in advance and there's no last-minute scramble. • Pay and incentives for airline pilots should increase.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, pilots who are being hired to meet a critical shortage of cockpit officers are being offered less than $40,000 per year at most of the major airlines and half of that at any number of regional carriers.
Attention to this industrywide problem was brought home when it was revealed that the pilot of the Colgan Air commuter plane that crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009 was earning $23,000. She supplemented her pilot's income by waitressing. I've seen studies indicating that US Airways pilots are paid just under $22,000 to start. That means about 72 hours a month actually flying with lots more hours involved in preparing for flight, having to overnight away from home and countless hours spent waiting around for something to happen. Southwest pilots are at the very high end of the spectrum, with salaries for starting pilots in the $50,000-per-year range.
As things stand today, captains who fly cargo for UPS and FedEx are valued over those who fly people. Their captains average more than $200,000 per year.
I want the pilot who flies my family and clients, plus the hundred or so other souls onboard our aircraft, to make as much money as the average Goldman Sachs trader.
• The major cruise lines should eliminate noncommissionable fees while reducing certain overrides to heavy rebaters of their products. This should be the year that cruise line management realizes that avoiding cruise bookings in favor of full-commission alternative products is a very real phenomenon, and it is directly traceable to seemingly arbitrary decisions regarding the percentage of the total now represented by noncommissionable fees. This would be a good year for everyone to come to their senses with the aim of ending the now-deepening chasm between cruise sellers and cruise lines. This was, for decades, the strongest business bond in travel. It accounted for the growth of the industry but is now becoming adversarial. There must be a formula that would end noncommissionable fees while eliminating rebate loopholes, enabling cruise lines to pay those who create new sales rather than poach existing ones. • Hotels should be open with guests about security and room-sanitization issues.
Most hotel chains and independents are still adopting a "do not discuss" policy when it comes to property safety and room cleanliness. Clients want to know about security procedures. They want to know who, if anyone, is on duty at night and what their security background might be. They are concerned when it appears easy for anyone to walk in off the street and gain entrance to guest floors. And they are aware of a growing bedbug problem and want assurances that their room is truly sanitized. But both issues are swept under the rug. Will anyone take steps to reassure potential guests about these concerns? • Travel professionals need to wage a comprehensive campaign to explain why booking directly with a supplier is never in a consumer's interest.
A major media campaign needs to drive home this point. But don't hold your breath. It is in every travel supplier's interest to keep the consumer in the dark about built-in commission fees. Nothing speaks louder to the bottom line than tacking on a commission and override to the profit already built into a direct booking.
Will a newly invigorated ASTA and the various major consortia come out fighting on this one? • We need a nationwide policy to address the approaching shortages of qualified airline pilots, air traffic controllers and aircraft maintenance mechanics.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. is headed for a critical shortage of qualified airline pilots in this decade. The FAA's own Office of Inspector General reports that one-third of the "senior" air traffic controllers at the nation's most important airports are now eligible for retirement.
Although there is little evidence that outsourcing of aircraft maintenance is a safety hazard -- at least not yet -- repair shops in Argentina, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, China and Indonesia are doing a booming business with U.S. airlines. It is simply less than half the cost of having U.S.-based and -trained mechanics do the work.
The Aeroman company in El Salvador is now the largest of the outsource shops. At Aeroman, Salvadorean mechanics strip each aircraft down to bare metal and fix the bad wiring, cracks and rust before putting the pieces back together.
In a rather startling report that seems to have escaped most of the mainstream media, National Public Radio reported that the FAA "does not require airlines to report exactly where they send their aircraft for which kinds of repairs." So, with more than 700 aircraft repair shops worldwide, the FAA isn't exactly certain which facilities it should inspect. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].