Contrast the mixed reaction to the fee increase with the widespread public outrage over Meekins. His predicament pushed a lot of hot buttons: He’s a Vietnam veteran and a cancer patient. After he bought a nonrefundable ticket to visit his daughter, doctors reportedly told him that he was terminally ill and shouldn’t fly.
You’d think that Spirit would refund his fare out of compassion. A day before Baldanza changed his mind, I asked him to explain his reasoning for not okaying a refund. He delivered a terse response by e-mail. “In fairness to all of our customers,” he wrote, “we don’t make exceptions to our policies.” I followed up with him after he changed his mind, asking him to explain his reversal, and the response was even terser: no comment. Clearly, public pressure had prevailed.
Another hot-button topic is pets. I recently wrote a column for National Geographic Traveler in which I suggested that readers should leave their dogs and cats at home when they go on vacation. The reactions were predictable. “Young children traveling with their parents are a lot more disturbing than any animal could possibly be,” sniffed Cheryl Gray, a retired flight attendant, who referred to her dog as “part of our family.”
The passion of pet owners explains the success of Huart’s dog petition, which had the added backing of the social advocacy site Change.org. When a petition can attract more than 40,000 supporters — even if they aren’t likely customers — it will get an airline’s attention.
All this is sobering news to passengers who may be under the mistaken impression that their airline is actually listening to them, and it’s downright depressing for regulators who are trying to fix the problem of bad airline service.
For air travelers and consumer groups, it means that they’ll need the right mix of demographics, timing and critical mass to effect any kind of meaningful change on a policy level. It’s a tall order that requires cooperation and coordination, not to mention a lot of work.
Now that the Transportation Department has postponed its latest round of proposed airline consumer rules until after the election, and with air travelers still lacking a consistently unified voice in Washington, the chances that any real change will take place during the busy summer travel season seem distant at best.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at email@example.com.