Image: Waiting for bags
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP file
Since the beginning of the year, U.S. carriers have added fees and cut services like never before, and passengers are seething mad, writes columnist Christopher Elliott.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/28/2008 11:02:32 AM ET 2008-07-28T15:02:32

Are you ready for the airline passenger uprising of 2008?

Get ready. It’s coming. You can hear it in conversations with other travelers: the whispers of imminent action. You can almost feel it in the airport terminal: the nervous energy, the pent-up frustration.

And then, all of a sudden, it boils over like it did at Miami International Airport recently. When the crew for an American Airlines flight to New York didn’t arrive on time, passengers reportedly became agitated and verbally abusive. American’s employees feared for their safety and the flight was canceled in order to disperse the angry mob.

Previous insurrections by travelers tended to be spontaneous and unorganized (think passengers lashing out at flight attendants or at each other). But the number of reported so-called “air rage” incidents is actually near an all-time low, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. No, this revolution is taking place on the ground — either at the ticket counter, the gate or even long before passengers get to the airport.

In fact, some don’t make it to the airport at all.

“I just don’t fly unless it’s necessary,” says David Kazarian, the president of a medical services company in St. Petersburg, Fla. “I used to travel several times a month. Now I use telephone conferences and only travel once every three months.”

Airlines worry about passengers like Kazarian, because they rely on frequent business travelers for a large part of their revenues. When he stays home, the airlines start their slow descent into bankruptcy. But other travelers want to inflict pain on the airlines, too. And with good reason. Since the beginning of the year, U.S. carriers have added fees and cut services like never before. Passengers are seething mad.

So how do you exact revenge on the airline industry? Here are your options:

“Sabotage” the system
There’s no denying that airlines are creating an effective system designed for the sole purpose of removing money from your wallet. Want to check a bag? That’ll be $15. Talk to a reservations agent? Ten bucks, please. Need a drink of water? That’ll be $2. Everywhere you turn, it seems they want more money. Before you say, “but fuel costs are higher,” ask yourself two questions: First, do you think airlines will lift these onerous fees when fuel is cheaper? (Answer: No. These fees have almost nothing to do with higher fuel costs.) And second, how much do airlines really pay for their fuel? (Answer: About $1 per gallon less than we do at the pump.)

Now, by “sabotage” I don’t mean cutting wires on the plane or packing explosives in your carry-on. If airlines are creating a system that’s meant to milk you for more money, why not play that system to your advantage? Take Saturday-night stay rules, which were quietly re-introduced earlier this year. These minimum-stay requirements are meant to force business travelers to pay a higher fare. But there’s a way around them. By buying two roundtrip tickets and only using half of each ticket — what’s called a “back-to-back” itinerary — you can circumvent this unfair practice.

Resist the fees
“If the airlines win on these fees they will continue to levy them until it gets to the point where it’s cheaper to fly to Europe than it is to fly from New York to California,” says Sebastian Okser, a graduate student who lives in Finland. How, exactly, do you fight them? A complaint letter is a good start. There’s evidence that airlines count the number of grievances about a particular fee. They may even read the letter you’ve sent. In the past several weeks, I’ve had a chance to review several airline responses (they’re all form letters) which suggests the carriers have no intention of lifting these new surcharges. One way to underscore the seriousness of your complaint is to copy the Transportation Department, which compiles these grievances in a monthly report. Airlines pay attention to those numbers.

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How about lobbying the powers that be? Maybe force the airlines to quote a fare that includes all of the new extras? Or write some new passenger rights provisions into their contracts of carriage? Not a bad idea. A few months ago, I reported on the imminent demise of the passenger rights movement . At this point, only a grassroots campaign by airline passengers who are unified in their cause can persuade the government and the domestic airlines to change their ways. I remain hopeful that it will happen soon.

Inflict financial pain
When United Airlines lost Tom Brollini’s luggage on a recent trip to Hawaii, he didn’t get mad. He got even. The airline refused to cover his costs for toiletries and a change of clothes, and when it recovered his belonging three days after he arrived, it offered him a $50 discount off a future flight. “Needless to say, all I got was the run-around and nastiness, all the way up to the corporate level,” he says. So Brollini, who was then a military officer in charge of recruiting, instructed his travel department to never use United again. His decision cost the airline anywhere from 250 to 300 roundtrip tickets before Brollini retired. “I conservatively estimate I lost them the potential at $150,000 plus in business,” he adds.

This strategy works best if you’re employed by a large company and have some clout, when it comes to purchasing decisions. That means you have a title like “corporate travel manager” or “vice president” and control millions of dollars worth of air travel purchasing. But it’s not necessarily required. Often, all it takes is for someone in that important position to hear from several workers who have been mistreated by a preferred airline for something to be done.

Stop flying
“In my daydreams, every business and individual traveler in America refuses to buy an airline ticket for a week, or even a month, forcing the airlines to think outside the box and get back to being affordable service organizations without sacrificing our safety,” says Anne Nicolai, a consultant who lives in Minneapolis. Hers is a common sentiment. In the last few months, I’ve received dozens of e-mails from readers encouraging me to use my column to organize a boycott of the airline industry.

Refusing to fly probably won’t work. But boycotting a particular airline — now there’s an idea. Passengers might start by picking a carrier that has recently engaged in flagrant, customer-hostile acts. One likely target is Spirit Airlines, which shuttered its call center and began charging for advance seat reservations.  Another might be beleaguered, trendsetting American Airlines, which introduced us to the controversial fee for the first checked bag . Take your pick, my friends.

You don’t have to accept what the airlines are giving you — and taking from you. By playing the system, complaining about unfair surcharges, moving your business or boycotting an airline altogether, you can have your revenge.

Revolution? That will come. But for now? Patience.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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