By Christopher Elliott Herald Columnist
From the “gotcha” fees that can double the price of your trip to being roughed up by TSA screeners, there’s no shortage of issues to get mad about in the travel business.
So why do we allow the little things to set us off?
Case in point: My last article on pets and travel, which set off a firestorm when it appeared here a few weeks ago. I wrote that pets were better off at home and had no business joining you on vacation.
My “in” box promptly filled up with email from angry animal companions — yes, that’s what they call themselves, because it’s apparently species-centric to say that you “own” a cat or dog — criticizing me for my insensitivity.
The article finally made its way into syndication, where it generated even more unprintable comments.
“Although I did nothing to insult you, you have just attacked me with your snarky article slamming the cruelty-free crowd,” one reader wrote. “You could have made your point without being a hurtful jerk. Badly done.”
Let me tell you what hurts about that. It’s not that we can’t have our differences (we can, and that’s what makes this feature so much fun to read). It’s that I rarely see the same passion when it comes to the cruelty done to travelers.
I’ll give you an example. People like to think of the airline industry as “deregulated” but that’s hardly true. The government has strict rules and regulations that air carriers must follow. Particularly when it comes to animals.
Kennels have to be enclosed and allow room for the animal to stand, sit, breathe and rest comfortably, for instance.
The law that protects pet passengers is called the Animal Welfare Act. But there is no comparable regulation for human air travelers. In fact, the Transportation Department doesn’t require minimum seat sizes, ventilation, minimum feeding or watering, as it does for animals that fly.
Where is the outrage?
But instead of sending me indignant emails about the inhumane conditions that passengers have to endure, readers choose to be upset by a story that suggests animals would be happier at home.
I’m similarly mystified by the obsession over tarmac delays.
(Most recently, passengers were kept aboard a Jet Blue flight on the tarmac in Connecticut for eight hours.)
In the past few years, some passengers and those purporting to advocate for them have spent much of their energy pushing for new laws that would limit the amount of time an aircraft could wait on the tarmac before taking off.
Some folks even built their careers on this minor cause.
But a closer look at the tarmac delay problem reveals it’s infinitesimally small. A vast majority of flights leave the gate and take off as scheduled, with or without the new law.
How did we get distracted by tarmac delays? I think it had a lot to do with a Valentine’s Day ice storm in 2008, which grounded a lot of flights in New York. The incident brought an exceedingly rare problem to the attention of the Fourth Estate — and to their unquestioning audience.
Meanwhile, serious and important issues that affect travelers everywhere are all but ignored. Car rental companies that scam their customers on bogus damage claims: Where’s the outrage?
How about the fact that you can’t figure out the real cost of your airline ticket when you buy it. Or that hotels get to add mandatory “resort” fees that increase your room rate by up to $20. Who is with me?
No? Didn’t think so.
I’m not as angry with travelers about their lack of indignation as I am with the misguided pundits and self-styled consumer advocates who have led us to this complacency.
We look to the travel “experts” who make the rounds on the morning shows for leadership, and instead they offer up false causes that confuse us and only end up benefiting a travel industry that exploits us.
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, www.elliott.org or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
&Copy; 2011 Christopher Elliott/Tribune Media Services, Inc.