As we come up on Thanksgiving 2009, we all know that the airlines and many other travel providers have shown their appreciation for our business by adding fees, surcharges, hidden costs, fine print, and other myriad slights large and small. It's not all bad news, however; following are five reasons to be cheerful this holiday and winter travel season.
1) Technology for use on the road is finally getting user-friendly
It used to be that the annual best-of lists of gadgets and tech for travelers seemed targeted to future Geek Squad staff. You could use most of the stuff just fine, so long as you were willing and ready to download and install new drivers, reconfigure SMTP settings, override WEP keys, and in general know your way around the Windows Control Panel like you did your car radio. Those days are ending, and we're now approaching a "Jetsons"-like time where you can push a button on your wristwatch and communicate with anyone anywhere — although it turns out that we're using our phones, not wristwatches.
Consider that just a couple of years ago, if you wanted your family to see your vacation photos, you had to set up an account on a photo-sharing site, probably resize all the photos before uploading, and then send out a notice containing a URL and most likely a password before Grandmom could see her grandkid on a carousel ride. It almost wasn't worth the effort.
Now you can take a heap of photos using your phone, upload them to your Facebook account with a couple of clicks, let Facebook auto-update your Twitter account, and everyone can see everything at their leisure.
And this trend goes beyond smartphones; it doesn't get more "Jetsons" than Skype, for example. If you have ever used it, you know it's almost idiot-proof, even when using a Web cam. Forget the proverbial Grandmom being able to use it — when I was in Beijing during the Olympics last year, my toddler son could fire it up when I rang in.
I'm not that much of a gadget guy, but I recently purchased a Flip Mino HD, and boy does it deliver on the promise of easy-to-use tech. The camera, which is about as big as a Nutri-Grain bar, has a built-in pop-up USB stick that, when you plug it into your computer, runs yet more idiot-proof software right from the camera. You can upload entire videos to YouTube almost without effort. The first time I tried the software, I figured it would never work — it was way too easy.
Numerous other apps and services now allow extremely simple uploads of photos, videos and more, and all of them offer very nearly one-click technology.
2) Fees may be up, but base fares are down
The airlines have piled on fees for every imaginable amenity, and most necessities to boot (remember when Ryanair briefly floated the idea of charging for toilet access?). And the airlines are not alone — hotels charge steep fees for Internet access and parking, rental car companies charge extra for early drop-offs, theme parks charge extra for faster lines. Travel has edged ever closer to being an a la carte consumer experience — i.e., if you want it, you've gotta buy it, from checked bags to a seat assignment to water.
The upside, however, is that this a la carte approach is actually keeping prices down. Base fares are holding and even falling, even if total cost in the end isn't that different from what we are used to. Except for some of the extreme cases, I find I can support the idea of a la carte services — if I check a bag and you don't, you shouldn't have to subsidize my bags. This way we pay for what we use — and what we pay for the base service is extremely affordable on a system-wide basis at present.
3) Planes may be full, but delays are down
Over the past couple of years, various factors have inspired the airlines to cut back on capacity dramatically. The resulting decrease in the number of planes in the air (and at the airport) has caused a trend toward full flights on popular routes, but it has also significantly reduced congestion throughout the system, from check-in to take-off to tarmac and gate space.
Although choice is more limited, the good news for travelers is a corresponding decrease in delays. Don't believe me? Scan the following releases from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics; every month is better than last year, and most better than the previous month:
- Airline on-time performance improved
- Airline on-time performance improved
- June airline on-time performance better than last year but down
- Airline on-time performance improves
And so it goes, month after month all the way to the 2008 year-end summary: Airline on-time performance improves.
Each of the releases above also includes mishandled baggage stats, which show the same trend of steady improvement — again mostly due to reduced ridership, but we'll take it nonetheless.
4) Travelers' voices are finally getting heard
It took nothing less than the global adoption of a transformative and egalitarian technology, but travel providers are finally being held accountable for their actions — by travelers. The very public broadcast platforms of Twitter and YouTube stepped in where the government and certainly the companies themselves feared to tread, and providers have been forced to respond, whether reluctantly (United) or enthusiastically (Virgin Atlantic) as evidenced in How social media is changing travel.
Almost more surprisingly, some forward-looking travel companies are taking customer service directly to the customer instead of the other way around. As noted in the same article, both Southwest and JetBlue took very proactive action when some of their customers tweeted problems while traveling, in one case reaching the customer while he was still in line at the airport. You can't get a better response than that.
5) Airlines may be coming out of the woods
It doesn't always turn out to be the case that what is good for the airlines is also good for travelers. Somewhere along the line our mutual best interests were crosswired, and thus when the airlines suffer, we travelers seem to thrive, and vice versa.
That said, the fact that airlines are posting or anticipating better numbers in many areas (on-time performance, trend toward profitability, etc.) hopefully bodes well for the industry and travelers alike. Seeing the airlines emerge from the dire straits of the past couple of years can't be bad for the health of the system as a whole, and some airlines at least are seeing signs of a turnaround not only in operations as mentioned above, but in their finances (see a few representative news items below).
Let's hope the angel on their shoulder sees them through to sharing some of the good times when they come back around.
Finally, we might be most thankful that, with modern life requiring us to cross mountains and oceans to get our work done and to visit family and friends, nearly everyone gets there more or less safely and soundly, despite the worst hassles (and sometimes intentions) along the way. Here's wishing you safe, affordable and easy travel this holiday season.