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Keith Alexander

Consumers Exercise Their Growing Clout

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page E01

Consumer clout -- it's a potent weapon these days for bullying travel-related companies into changing policies. Competition is so tight that airlines, hotels and car rental agencies are listening -- and responding -- to customer complaints with renewed vigor.

Last week, numerous complaints prompted Hertz to back off a plan to introduce a $2.50 reservation fee on all of its vehicle rentals in the United States. The retreat followed recent moves by several airlines to eliminate their Saturday night stay requirement and by other carriers to slash their ticket exchange fee to $50 from $100. Also recently, some hotels responded to persistent complaints from guests about grubby bedspreads, replacing them with covers that allow easier and more frequent cleaning.

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Washington Post reporters Sara Goo and Keith Alexander discussed holiday air travel woes.
_____Budget Airlines_____
Invasion Of the Budget Carriers (The Washington Post, Apr 18, 2004)
List of Budget Airlines (pdf)

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Hertz Blames Web Options For a New Fee (The Washington Post, Feb 15, 2005)
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Travel experts say the changes are prompted most often not by individual complaints but by the organized action of consumers using e-mails and Internet message board postings.

"If it's repetitive enough, the companies will get the message and will do something," said Chris McGinnis, editor and publisher of the Ticket, an online newsletter aimed at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and AirTran frequent fliers. "It has to be a concerted effort over a period of time. But a lone cry in the night won't get anyone to change anything."

Hertz acted on the reservation fee after several large clients organized an e-mail campaign and other regular customers posted a "boycott Hertz" message on FlyerTalk.com, a popular Internet message board made up of some of the nation's most frequent -- and influential -- travelers.

Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group of more than 300 corporate travel managers, was one of the leaders in the campaign against the Hertz fee. The group created a blog where members recorded their "outrage" at the planned charge, which they called a hidden price increase.

Before the policy even went into effect, Hertz executives switched their plans into reverse and put the charge on "indefinite hold."

In 2002, Delta's frequent fliers were outraged when the airline reduced mileage awards on steeply discounted tickets. They created a Web site called SaveSkyMiles.com and raised money to send a truck-mounted billboard protesting the change to a Delta annual meeting. Delta reversed the decision in December 2004. Now, passengers on cheap tickets get a full point instead of a half for every mile.

"The airlines are in such dire straits that they're finally forced to listen to consumers more than they have in the past," McGinnis said.

US Airways frequent fliers mounted a campaign against a 2002 decision to void the value of an unused ticket instead of applying it to a future trip. Passengers -- calling themselves cockroaches -- organized via the Internet, began holding regular meetings and sent e-mails to US Airways managers denouncing the policy. Nearly a year later, US Airways backed off the plan.

"Customer service is incredibly important, and we know that we need to be out there earning our customers every day," said US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.

Even the government has had to bend to complaints from travelers. Late last year, the Transportation Security Administration changed its procedures on patting down passengers at checkpoints after many complaints from women.

The upsurge in customer clout does not mean, however, that policies that anger travelers are a thing of the past. Northwest Airlines kicked off an industry trend last year of charging travelers between $5 and $10 for booking flights with a reservation agent over the phone or at an airport ticket counter instead of through the carrier's Web sites.

Delta had tried charging customers a $2 fee for reservations booked on Web sites other than its own but backed off that policy. Soon after, however, it began charging customers $5 for making reservations over the telephone.

"Customers don't always win. Timing is everything," said Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe.com, a business-travel Web site. "Over time, [travel-related companies] just find another way to get what they want."

Question of the Week: In an effort to cut costs, several airlines have eliminated various perks and amenities such as hot meals and pillows. Business Class wants to know what else you would be willing to do without in exchange for lower fares. Please send your comments, your name and a daytime phone number to alexanderk@washpost.com.

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