Image: U.S. gas prices
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There isn’t a lot of evidence that higher energy costs stopped people from vacationing, but drivers certainly became more conscious of their fuel consumption.  Even the cruise industry decided to take advantage of this collective awareness. Late in the year, many cruise lines began imposing fuel surcharges on future sailings, even those that had already been paid in full.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/17/2007 12:39:43 PM ET 2007-12-17T17:39:43

When you look back at the most important travel news of 2007, you might be tempted to start — and end — with the passenger rights revolution. Remember all those planes stranded on the tarmac on Valentine’s Day, the media feeding frenzy that followed and the ensuing, but as-yet unsuccessful, push to regulate U.S. airlines?

But you’d be wrong.

Maybe, then, you’d think the summer of airline delays and cancellations would qualify as the top travel story. Or the continuing sad but inevitable devaluation of frequent flier miles.

Wrong again.

Those stories, while significant, only affected a privileged few passengers. Think about it. For every mile they travel by airline, Americans go about 452 miles by car. So let’s get our heads out of the clouds for a moment and talk about what happened last year that actually affected us, the real travelers.

Unaffordable hotel rates get even more unaffordable
The important stories took place on the ground, in places like your hotel. Room rates continued to soar — they were expected to average about $100 a night for 2007 — which forced a lot of travelers to either take shorter vacations or find a lodging alternative. (Seven years ago, the average room rate was just $85 night). I wrote about the inevitable shift away from traditional lodging in a recent column . Well, there’s bad news and good news for people who were sleeping on their cousin’s sofa in 2007. Next year won’t get much better — in fact, room rates are expected to rise by about four percent. But on the upside, the lodging industry is cyclical, which means rates could fall back down to earth soon. It’s possible that we may even see some bargains later in 2008, which would be welcome to those of us who just skipped a vacation altogether.

Look out for clogged roads and collapsing bridges
Many of the nation’s urban roads resembled parking lots, to the point where traffic hotspots were competing for the dubious title of “Most Gridlocked City.” Could it get any worse? Oh, yes. You could have been one of the unlucky motorists on the I-35W bridge, which fell into the Mississippi on Aug. 1, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100. Much of the travel press treated this disaster like a local story, but I bet if Jihadists had commandeered two passenger jets and steered them into the span, they probably wouldn’t have. (Does it have to have wings in order to be big news? Alas, the answer is often “yes.”) Let’s put this into some perspective. About 40,000 people are killed every year on U.S. roads, vs. only a few hundred (if that) in commercial airline accidents. No solution is in sight to the intolerable traffic and unacceptable rate of road fatalities. Throwing more money at them doesn’t even seem to make us more aware of the problem. It just leaves us all a little poorer.

Higher fuel prices slam motorists, cruisers
Rising gas prices have affected drivers the most. The average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline jumped from $2.33 to about $3 at the end of the year. Some of the highest prices came during June, July and August, which put a damper on the traditional summer road trip. There isn’t a lot of evidence that these higher energy costs stopped people from vacationing, but drivers certainly became more conscious of their fuel consumption. To the point where the cruise industry decided to take advantage of this collective awareness. Late in the year, many cruise lines began imposing fuel surcharges on future sailings, even those that had already been paid in full. This, despite the fact that some cruise lines had pre-purchased their fuel for next year, and in at least one case, had publicly promised not to impose a fuel surcharge. It will be interesting to see what happens next. Will cruise lines factor higher fuel costs into their fares, like they should? And if fuel prices come down, will they refund the fuel surcharges? (The correct answer: no and no.)

Yes, we’ve got the power
Travelers are used to taking whatever the travel industry gives them. But a comment made by Harald Braakman, chairman of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, at an obscure airline conference, recently caught my attention. “Now we have to deal with a new type of customer,” he told a group of airline customer-service representatives. “An emancipated customer, aware of new rules and the rights; a customer who requires a new kind of approach.” (You can read more about that on my blog). In 2007, we’ve witnessed the rise of this empowered traveler, helped by new online technologies that allow more effective social networking. A good example of this is the Orbitz TLC Traveler Update which lets passengers share notes on airport delays. But other social networking sites such as TripAdvisor and Facebook — not to mention the thousands of travel blogs out there — made it clear that from here on out, travelers will have more power than ever. Good for us.

The big airline story? Look down
So what was the airline story of 2007? Here’s a clue: It played itself out on the ground. Am I talking about the terrible tarmac delays? Nope. The labor problems that affected several major airlines and thousands of passengers? Sorry. Instead, it was something far more important, even though it didn’t exactly make headlines. I think it was the near-breakdown of commercial aviation as we know it. There was evidence of this dysfunction everywhere: record delays, cancellations and more than a few scary near-collisions. Part of the problem is the nation’s antiquated air traffic control system, which is in dire need of an upgrade. Another part is a customer-hostile airline industry that’s been coddled by the government since deregulation. And let’s not forget our elected officials, some of whom have been influenced by the airline industry’s powerful lobby. There’s also the administration, which has taken a foolish Band-Aid approach to curing a chronic problem. Unfortunately, most media coverage focused on one or two symptoms of a much bigger issue, and unless we connect the dots and do something real soon, I’m afraid we’re headed for a real disaster.

Still, there are many reasons for travelers to start 2008 on an optimistic note. I’m hopeful that the next administration will have the courage to fix air travel (a little regulation and a lot of common sense is all it takes). I’m equally optimistic that the elected officials we send to Washington will have the vision to encourage alternative energy use, so that gas prices won’t be as much of an issue next year.

Most of all, I’m hopeful that we can make travel better. After all, we have the power.

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