From Facebook glitches at Southwest – in which the carrier inadvertently created more enemies than friends via a billing fiasco — to mid-air near-misses to legroom fees and child stowaways, the airline industry is going a little wacky these days.
And with another month of summer travel left before Labor Day weekend gives way to the start of a new school year and the end of peak vacation season, you might want to squeeze an air travel story in.
The fun thing about an air transportation story is that there’s something out there for every business beat, from food-service to investing to workplace to energy. Airports are bustling restaurant and retail hubs, and they’re generally big local employers too.
And of course, seldom is a human being more vulnerable than when packed into a speeding metal tube at 38,000 feet, making air travel a never-ending source of personal finance and consumer angles.
Some angles you might want to consider localizing include:
Fees. A perennial target of umbrage, the proliferation of a la carte charges for checked bags, in-flight snacks, Wi-Fi, roomier seats and now even boarding privileges really riles consumers and consumer advocates. And now, American Airlines will even deliver your baggage within a 40-mile radius for a $29.95 surcharge, leaving you free to exit the plane and bypass the luggage carousels.
Why not create a graphic deconstructing a typical ticket — ask airlines for the most popular destinations from your area and book some hypothetical flights — to show consumers where their travel dollars are going in terms of base fares, fuel surcharges, excise taxes and the optional fees that boost overall flying costs? This Shreveport Times article makes a good start, and here’s a story from The Economist that adds perspective about pricing.
One fee that most will cheer is the one that Alaska Airlines has instated for gate-checked bags. Little is more galling than forking out $25 for a checked bag, then seeing lots of laden travelers getting theirs gate-checked for free just as they board the aircraft, because bin space has run out. This uneven enforcement by airlines is a hot topic on traveler message boards and online fora but one I’ve not seen addressed or properly explained on financial news sites.
General aviation. We tend to think of large carriers when pondering air travel, but what about charter services, aircraft-sharing programs, flying schools and aircraft maintenance training programs, and other sectors that serve the private flying industry.
Complaints. The Dept. of Transporation doesn’t publish consumer complaints but I believe they’ll share samples with journalists upon request. And oddly, you can get information about injuries and deaths of pets, including narrative descriptions of how Snowball or Sam happened to be harmed en route, via the same DOT monthly report that covers on-time and baggage stats.
Also, if you’re in the D.C. area, keep an eye on the newly created Aviation Consumer Protection Agency, which just held its first meeting in June. The agency was created as a result of this year’s FAA Modernization Act and will be able to make recommendations about fares, fees and other items. Meetings are open to the public; dates and times will be published in the Federal Register. (Why not the Dept. of Transportation website, one wonders?)
This Reynolds Center beat explainer is also a great, helpful resource: Business Basics, Transportation | Airlines | Travel.