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Are the airlines listening to consumers? Depends on the situation

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By Christopher Elliott
When it comes to customer service, travel companies constantly push the limits with fees, surcharges and onerous policies. No industry does it more than the airlines, and no domestic airline does it more than Spirit Airlines, the small Florida-based carrier known for its risque ads and creative extras.
But consider what happened to Spirit last week, when the carrier made two decisions that drew an immense amount of publicity, much of it unexpected.
Within a few news cycles, it denied a dying war veteran a refund on a ticket he couldn't use, standing its ground because the ticket was nonrefundable. It also quietly raised its fees for carry-on luggage (that's right, carry-on luggage) to as much as $100; effective this fall.
It's difficult to overstate the public reaction. A Facebook petition to boycott Spirit mushroomed, garnering more than 40,000 "likes." Air travelers slammed the carrier as heartless and greedy.
Can you guess which of those issues Spirit relented on?
No, not the carry-on fees. It fully refunded Jerry Meekins' fare. "I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country," a contrite Ben Baldanza, Spirit's chief executive officer, said in a statement. He made a $5,000 contribution in Meekins' name to a charity for disabled veterans.
Spirit is hardly the first airline to back down after crossing a line. Just a few days after the Meekins incident, United Airlines changed its policy on transporting dogs after the owner of a pit bull collected more than 45,000 protest signatures online. Jessie Huart blasted United for banning some dogs from flying based on their breed, essentially suggesting that they were pet racists. United relented, issuing a brief statement that it will "now accept previously restricted breeds of dogs."
What made Spirit -- what makes any airline, for that matter -- reverse a decision? The answer raises some troubling issues, not only for summer air travelers but also for government regulators.
An airline often will back down in the face of unanimous opposition to one of its policies. But the reaction to Spirit's announcement about higher carry-on fees wasn't unanimous. Some air travelers supported the idea. "I think Spirit is on the right track with its carry-on fee," says Joan Mohan, an instructor at Grinnell College in Iowa. "Watching people competing for overhead space is annoying and time-consuming."
Another hot-button topic is pets. I recently wrote a column for National Geographic Traveler in which I suggested that readers should leave their dogs and cats at home when they go on vacation.
The reactions were predictable. "Young children traveling with their parents are a lot more disturbing than any animal could possibly be," sniffed Cheryl Gray, a retired flight attendant, who referred to her dog as "part of our family."
The passion of pet owners explains the success of Huart's dog petition, which had the added backing of the social advocacy site When a petition can attract more than 40,000 supporters -- even if they aren't likely customers -- it will get an airline's attention.
All this is sobering news to passengers who may be under the mistaken impression that their airline is actually listening to them, and it's downright depressing for regulators who are trying to fix the problem of bad airline service.
For air travelers and consumer groups, it means that they'll need the right mix of demographics, timing and critical mass to affect any kind of meaningful change on a policy level. It's a tall order that requires cooperation and coordination, not to mention a lot of work.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. He's also the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals." You can read more travel tips on his blog, or email him at
© 2012 Christopher Elliott/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Story tags » Air travel

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