What is it about air travel that makes us lose our minds?
Just the other day, I got an email from a reader who claimed she was "outraged" by a flight delay.
The first leg of her flight from Austin to Dallas had been canceled, causing her to miss her connection to an international flight. Although her airline handled the service interruption by the book, offering a flight the following day, she would have none of it.
She just knew it was a conspiracy.
Why? Because her parents had taken the identical flights the day before, and they departed on time. She suspected -- although she had no evidence to support this conclusion -- that because the flights from Austin to Dallas were not flying at capacity, the airline had simply canceled it.
"We have hotel bookings that they are not willing to compensate for," the passenger said, "not to mention valuable vacation time we are wasting."
You don't have to be an expert on airlines to know that canceling a scheduled flight just because it's flying half-empty doesn't make a lot of sense. Besides being on the line for missed connections, meals and hotel vouchers for the displaced passengers, it would almost certainly draw unwanted attention from government regulators.
Either way, a single cancellation hardly amounts to a conspiracy.
"I want a refund and apology," she said.
I told her I couldn't help. I didn't tell her why.
But I'll tell you: Her request was totally unreasonable. A complete refund on a ticket she'd used? Reimbursement for missed hotel nights? Sorry, no can do.
But reason has nothing to do with any of this. If we were reasonable, we'd be willing to pay a fair airfare -- one that covered the cost of operating a flight. Instead, we want something free or as close to free as it gets. Maybe that's why airline managers feel they have no choice but to lie to us about the true costs of our tickets, dangling unsustainably low fares in front of our noses and then socking us with fees and surcharges.
The problem with air travel, both from a passenger and an airline perspective, is that we've disengaged our brains almost completely from the process.
Airlines abandoned reason long ago. Their fares make no sense (why does a roundtrip airfare cost half as much as a one-way ticket, for example?). Their business model makes even less sense (it's based on upselling you on extras, like luggage fees and sky-high change fees). Even the fact that they're in the airline business to begin with makes no sense, because if they studied their history, they'd know that over the long term, no one makes money operating an airline.
And how about passengers? A lot of them are just as nuts. On what planet are $59 fares to anywhere sustainable? Not this one. Yet we don't book until the price is right. And what if that flight is delayed by a few hours? I've seen passengers go after airlines for event tickets, missed hotel reservations, lost wages and vacation time when inclement weather prevented an on-time departure.
Who are these people?
When it comes to air travel, almost nothing is rational anymore. Don't even get me started on airports, the TSA, airport food vendors, mass transit and taxi service to the airport. They're all out of their minds, too.
The crazy isn't fixable. It will be with us for generations.
As some of you know, I'm wrapping up this column at the end of the year. It's been a wild ride, but no industry has offered a richer source of material than airlines.
But as perhaps its greatest beneficiary, l just want to say: thank you.Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)