Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Unmasked: How Airlines and Hotels Sock It To Us
September 3, 2015 -- These are happy days for airline moguls and hotel magnates. Revenues are soaring. Prices are rising. Profits are at record highs. Their stocks are trendy. Life is so good that the travel chieftains have time for games. Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary recently dressed up as Robin, the boy wonder, as part of car-rental promotion. At investor conferences, U.S. airline bosses wear ludicrously colorful stockings in an effort to, um, get a leg up. But masquerading as a superhero and wearing sporty socks doesn't make our lives on the road any easier. In fact, while they're dressing up, we're getting fleeced. Here are four ways that the masks travel executives wear are socking it to us.
Unmasking airfare 'choice'Airlines around the world share credit — or, more accurately, blame — for so called "unbundled pricing," but it's Ryanair's Robin, Michael O'Leary, who deserves most of the kudos and condemnation. No carrier has been more creative in stripping items out of the basic airfare and then selling them back to you as "ancillary products." Ryanair even charges you a fee because it has to pay taxes. Airlines position this as "customer choice" and claim flyers only need buy what they want to buy. But when you rip off the mask, the fact is that airlines use unbundling to push up prices. If you purchase on an a la carte basis today all of the things that once were included in the airfare — meals, checked bags, change fees, seat assignments, priority boarding — your total cash skyrockets. Don't believe me? Look no further than JetBlue Airways. When it imposed a fee for the first checked bag earlier this summer, it introduced a "family" of fares. The new lowest price, which didn't include a checked bag, was exactly equal to the lowest price JetBlue had been selling when it included a bag in the fare. If you wanted to buy a ticket that included a checked bag, the new JetBlue "family" fare was $15-$25 one-way higher than before.
Unmasking the millennial mythHoteliers are building new lodgings that purportedly appeal to millennial travelers. But hotel operators are perpetrating a myth: Lodgings they create for the so-called millennial guest skimp on guest rooms in order to make a flashy show of lobbies that are an odd mix of Starbucks, grab-and-go food shop and rumpus room. Take the Hyatt Herald Square. Even in New York, where small guest rooms and small apartments are an uncomfortable fact of life, this particular Hyatt is notably miniscule. Rooms measure just 160 square feet. There's no desk, only a ledge. There's no desk chair, either. You sit on an ottoman if you're crazy enough to perch your computer or tablet on the ledge. The loveseat has no arms. There's no door on the closet. Things like the mini-fridge hang off the wall so there is floor space to stash your luggage. But the hotel doesn't tell you that. It stresses what it claims millennial travelers desire: a rooftop lounge, a lobby "den" where you can eat, drink, see and be seen — and, of course, an espresso bar.
Unmasking the carry-on conundrumThe travel world was inflamed earlier this year when IATA, the global airline-industry trade group, proposed new "standard" dimensions for carry-on bags. It claimed the standard would make things easier for passengers. That was a lie, of course, because the IATA dimensions would have forced almost every traveler in the world to buy new luggage. U.S. carriers were quick to disavow the IATA move and claimed no one ever consulted them. That, too, is a lie. The U.S. carriers have been fiddling with carry-on sizes for years and putting their thumb on the scales, er, baggage sizers. As The Wall Street Journal proved two weeks ago with a single photo, carry-on sizer boxes at the gate are different sizes even when the airlines claim they permit the same size carry-on bags. Why the games? Since all carriers except Southwest Airlines now charge for checked bags, more travelers carry on to duck fees. Plus flights operate with record load factors, meaning more passengers. More travelers and more carry-ons mean the airlines don't have enough carry-on space on the aircraft. Their solution? Claim your bag violates the ever-shifting rules and force you to check it.
Unmasking hotel 'go green' campaignsWhenever the travel industry produces an "infographic," you can be sure there's an entirely different agenda hiding behind the perky copy and cutesy images. So make what you will of the new Starwood infographic about the chain's drive to conserve water. The hotel industry has been "going green" for decades. It's all the rage not to change your sheets each day of your stay. We've all been scolded by in-room placards urging us to reuse towels rather than ask housekeeping to replace them. Like Starwood, all hotels hector us to use less water. To the gullible and credulous traveler, this seems like an industry intent on doing the right thing by Mother Earth. But hotels don't go green to be better stewards of the planet. They do it to save money. How much? Hundreds of millions for sure. Billions, perhaps. Exact numbers are hard to come by. There's nothing wrong with saving money while promoting a green agenda. But the ugly fact is hotels never go green when it costs them some green. Thirty years ago, on a business trip to Japan, I checked into a hotel that required you to put your room key card into a slot just inside the door. When the card was in the slot, the lights and electricity in the room could be used. When you removed the key as you left the room, lights were extinguished en masse and electrical plugs were deactivated. In the decades since, I've seen only a few hotels adopt the "master key" system to save energy. Whenever I ask a hotelier why his brand new property doesn't have such a foolproof energy saver, the answer is always the same: Installing the key-card system would have cost a few bucks and the developer didn't want to spend the money to be green and reduce energy consumption.
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