Do travelers need a government bailout?

Maybe travelers need a government bailout.

Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen the travel industry line up at the trough for government handouts. A $500 billion loan fund for hotels, $50 billion for airlines, $25 billion for travel agents.

Yeah, that’s billion with a “B.”

And what did America’s taxpayers get for it? Not much.

Travel companies didn’t have to promise to fix their abusive policies. Airlines may continue charging outrageous fees and squeezing us into small seats. Tour operators are allowed to force us into ridiculous contracts when we book a vacation. And hotels can keep on charging “gotcha” resort fees.

The latest insult is Frontier Airlines’ attempt to cash in on our collective desire to maintain social distancing. The airline tried to sell — yes, sell — the empty middle seat for an extra $39. It quickly backed off after receiving intense public criticism.

Many other travel companies just turned around and retroactively changed their refund policies to allow them to keep even more of your money.

“I’m really fuming,” says John Kovacs, a retired consultant and frequent traveler based in Denver. “They get a bailout and continue to force us into hamster-size seats.”

So what would make travelers less angry? Well, maybe we need a bailout. Not a financial bailout, but a helping hand from the government. Travel companies should obey their own rules and government regulations. Maybe we can’t go back and impose conditions on the $2 trillion in government aid, but can’t we at least attach a string or two to future assistance?

Travel companies must obey the law

When it comes to customer service, travel is lightly regulated. But there are a few rules. One is the Department of Transportation’s requirement that airlines fully refund a flight if they cancel it, regardless of the reason.

By the way, if a refund is due, your airline must process it within seven business days if you paid by credit card, and 20 business days if you paid by cash or check.

But airlines apparently believe this rule is negotiable in the coronavirus outbreak. United Airlines last week began telling customers that it can only offer a ticket credit, even when it cancels a flight. Others quickly followed.

I checked with the Transportation Department, and it reaffirmed that the rule was very much in effect. Then it issued an enforcement notice reminding airlines that passengers should be refunded promptly when their scheduled flights are canceled or significantly delayed.

It’s the height of corporate arrogance to ask their customers — the American taxpayer — for a bailout and then to take even more of their money. Yet that’s exactly what is happening.

Meanwhile, airline insiders are telling me that they have no intention of changing the way they do business after the coronavirus outbreak ends. This, they insist, is the way the free market works.

No wonder travelers are livid.

Travelers need a government bailout, but travel companies must follow their own rules

It gets worse. For years, travel companies pushed their customers into one-sided contracts that limited — or completely eliminated — their rights. If you wanted a full refund on a cruise, flight or resort stay, there was only one certain way you could get it: The company had to cancel. But in recent days, companies have reneged on that industry-standard practice, too, citing “extraordinary” circumstances.

Consider what happened to Kelly Kraft when Sandals canceled her upcoming vacation at Beaches Turks & Caicos, an all-inclusive property. A representative contacted her and told her that the $11,284 she’d paid for her vacation was “fully nonrefundable.” Sandals offered her a credit valid for one year.

“They are trying to find a reason to justify keeping the money I paid for services I am not going to receive,” says Kraft, a sales director from Diamondhead, Miss.

Interestingly, Kraft’s cancellation isn’t even addressed in her contract. Sandals has rules for when you cancel a vacation, but not when it cancels. A Sandals representative said the company has always addressed these rare instances on a case-by-case basis. But she added that reaction from customers to the voucher offer has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

I’m not so sure about that. Many travelers are stuck at home and are facing sickness or unemployment as the coronavirus spreads. Is it asking too much for a travel company to refund a vacation it canceled?

If companies want more aid, travelers should get something

Travel companies will ask for more aid soon. When they do, legislators should attach a list of common-sense requirements to the next bailout. At a minimum, airlines, cruise lines and hotels must follow their contracts and obey all applicable rules and regulations.

But these companies should also promise to do better. They can’t just pick up where they left off when the outbreak started. Their customers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, now more than ever. In an age of social distancing, airlines should offer all of their passengers a humane — and safe — amount of personal space on a plane. Hotels must stop charging surprise resort fees. And all travel companies should honor their agreements.

The travel industry should have been treating their customers better all along. But if they’re going to take our money, they need to start now.

Travelers need a government bailout — and here’s what it should look like

The airline industry is likely to ask for more aid in the coming weeks. Here’s what passengers want in return:

Fair fees. Airlines should agree to stop charging fees that are unreasonable or disproportional to the costs they incur. That means no more $750 ticket change fees or $200 baggage fees.

Humane seat sizes. The government is under a Congressional mandate to set minimum airline seat sizes. Until it does, airlines must promise to refrain from moving their seats even closer together.

Flexible refunds. Airlines must fully refund a ticket when a passenger has an infectious disease. And those change fees they waived for spring flights? Make them permanent, please.

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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