This was supposed to be a feel-good column for the holidays, where I asked readers what kind of presents they wanted from the travel industry, and all of the resulting good tidings left us warm and fuzzy.
And then I talked with you.
And here's what you told me: First, your holiday list begins and ends with the airlines; and second, you do not feel warm and fuzzy. Not at all.
"I wish they'd stop treating us like idiots," (that's #1, if you're counting) says Marian Marbury, who runs a Baltimore-based tour company.
I'll get to what's vexing Marbury in a minute. But let's just say for now that you're not happy with the airline industry, and you don't think making a wish will make you any happier.
I respect that. I think the airlines know it, too.
The airline industry is a popular target. The University of Michigan's authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index gives the overall industry a failing grade of 64. In the interests of fairness, I should note that the same survey gave news organizations a cumulative grade of 63, so in a roundabout way, consumers like airlines slightly more than they do snarky columnists like me.
Who is better qualified to write this column than me, then? I understand what it's like to be the object of ridicule. If your holiday wish has a chance of being granted, I'm the guy to tell you. I'll give it to you straight.
Take Marbury's gripe. "My long-term love affair with Southwest was seriously damaged by their announcement of Early Bird Check-in for an extra $10, 'for our convenience'," she told me. "Oh Southwest, we're not dumb. We know you need to make more money and we know you're still one of the only airlines to not charge a baggage fee. But what's next? Now that you've started down that slippery slope of tacking on fees for things I didn't have to pay for before, can I still trust you? Why couldn't you just be honest and treat me like an adult and tell me you need more money. I'm hurt."
2. I Wish They'd Eliminate Fees for the First Checked Bag
"I would ask that they would take away the extra charges for luggage," says Canadian videographer Joe Vass. Yeah, wouldn't that be nice? Ever since American Airlines became the first major carrier to begin charging for the first checked bag last year, all of the other legacy airlines have jumped on the fee bandwagon. They've made tens of millions of dollars from us. Interestingly, the airlines cited high fuel prices as the reason for adding these fees, but even when their costs fell, these fees stayed in place. Oh, well.
3. I Wish They'd Let Families on Board First
"Why can't the airline industry reinforce or reinstate pre-boarding for families with young children?" asks Corinne McDermott, who writes a blog about traveling with kids (www.havebabywilltravel.com). "It truly makes life easier for the parents and the other passengers, as it's easier to board once everyone's settled."
Well, that may be, but there's another reason why elite-level business travelers, first-class passengers, dignitaries and other members of the "me-first" class must be boarded before the littlest passengers: They're more profitable. Not to be mean, but babies don't make the airlines much money.
4. I Wish They'd Give Us More Room
"Wouldn't it be nice if they recognized the growing size of the American general public and helped super-sized ladies and gentlemen enjoy travel?" asks Peggy Richardson Hebert, who works for a law firm in Nashville, Tenn. Yes, it would be. But unfortunately, the trend is going in the opposite direction, as airlines try to squeeze more seats on planes. Prediction: In a few more years, people of size will no longer be welcome on an airline without paying a hefty surcharge.
5. I Wish They Would Ease Up on the Change Fees
"Why don't they have a more flexible cancellation or change policy, along the lines of Southwest Airlines?" asks Lynn Cuda, a retired nurse from Jacksonville. (Southwest's change rules are relatively simple when compared with other airlines). Why not? Because airlines make millions of dollars from change fees. Cuda tried to change her American Airlines itinerary and was told it would be a "nominal" $150 fee. Since when is $150 nominal?
6. I Wish They'd Charge Us One Price for Everything
"Stop nickel and diming us," says Teri Hurley, a travel agent from Georgetown, Texas. Indeed, airlines have "unbundled" their fares, stripping away everything from soft drinks to the ability to check luggage from their fares, in an effort to make more money. That's confused a lot of air travelers and left them feeling betrayed and angry.
Of course, the technology exists to quote an airfare that includes everything we want -- allowing us to opt out of things we'd prefer not to have, like checked luggage or the ability to make a confirmed reservation. But airlines won't do that either, because our confusion is ... well, profitable.
7. I Wish They'd Be Nicer to Those of Us in the Back of the Plane
"Pay attention to your economy passengers," says Janice Dottin, who works for an insurance company in Boston. "Business travelers who can upgrade to first class log so many miles that their loyalty is important, but they are a tiny percentage of your customers. Your plane wouldn't generate enough revenue to keep running without all those coach ticket sales." Ah, if only that were true. Unfortunately, more than half an airline's revenue comes from business travelers, so they actually can treat the rest of us like second-class citizens (which, technically, we are) and get away with it. Is it wrong? Of course. But it's right for their businesses.
We've faced new fees and security hassles, survived health scares and high fuel prices and connected to the rest of the world through amazing innovations in online technology. The past decade may have changed the way we travel, but nothing could stop us from going.
Like I said, I don't want to ruin the holiday mood here, but it's kinda already ruined. In a way, most of us would happily give up any of these wishes to be treated with just a little decency when we fly.
"Most people just want to be treated fairly and with respect," says Cindy Plume, who works for a machine tool repair company in Defiance, Mo. "If only airlines would find a way to respond to their customers that would show the customer that they are not only being heard but they are also being shown respect. Seems almost too simple."
Yes, it does.
Respecting the customer isn't just free, but it can make up for a lot of the other terrible things that are happening in today's airline industry.
I can't think of a more appropriate holiday gift.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.