This is what it's like to travel without any rules
Governments went easy on the travel industry during the pandemic. Here's what's about to happen
It's not exactly the anarchy of a Mad Max movie or the pandemonium of a Walking Dead episode, but the travel industry's troubled relationship with government regulators should still scare the living daylights out of anyone.
In the last few days, it's become clear that regulators have looked the other way during the pandemic — and that they continue to do so — in the interests of propping up airlines, hotels and cruise lines.
The winner: the travel industry.
The loser: you.
I'll tell you where this is all leading in just a minute.
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A slap on the wrist for airlines
You have to be an airline geek to follow the government's aviation protection orders. But if there were ever a time to pay attention, it is now.
Fines against airlines for violating department regulations are at record lows after the pandemic. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued just four consent orders this year. (Actually, make that three. One of them was against an online travel agency, so that doesn't really count.)
The DOT has assessed only $325,000 in penalties or about $81,250 per consent order. That's the lowest dollar amount since 2000.
I've sat in a conference room at DOT headquarters and have asked its lawyers how they decide to enforce the rules. I could not get a straight answer. As best I can tell, they wait until there's a critical mass of complaints, then decide to act. But if that were true, we should have more fines since complaints about airline service are at record highs. Overall, complaints are more than 264 percent above pre-pandemic levels.
Instead, airline enforcement actions are falling dramatically.
Imagine if your local police force only gave out three traffic tickets per year. Also, imagine if the tickets were only a few pennies each. That's what these fines represent to airlines, which earn billions of dollars in revenue every year. Pennies.
At the same time — and I really don't have to tell you this — airlines are giving us the worst service in a generation. Oh, the government says it wants to protect consumers with proposed new rules. But it is doing the very opposite. It is coddling the airlines and refusing to punish almost every violation of the U.S. government's already inadequate consumer protections.
Hotels get a pass
Hotels, which are regulated at the state and local level, have enjoyed a rule-free environment since the start of the pandemic, too. There are exceptions, of course. This summer, California regulators fined Ritz-Carlton $535,000 for unlawful disposal of hazardous waste at eight of its California locations. But I'm hard-pressed to find a single state that consistently reports hotel fines, and I've seen almost no reports of enforcement actions against hotels during the pandemic.
The problem is solvable. States could require local municipalities to file public reports disclosing which hotels were fined and how much the fines were. And they could disclose any state-imposed penalties in a clear and public way online. I'm unaware of any state that does.
The issue could be the regulations themselves. State lodging laws are notoriously industry-friendly, written by the lodging industry and industry-beholden lawmakers. You would have to dump toxic waste in your backyard to get anyone to do anything, which is exactly what has happened.
Even when it comes to surcharges that should be illegal, like resort fees, efforts to rein in hotels came to a virtual standstill during the pandemic. (Don't get too excited about Pennsylvania's resort-fee actions. They've done nothing for guests — yet.)
But what about flaunting consumer regulations with unfair and deceptive practices? Honestly, I've heard nothing — not a peep. And that leads me to believe that hotels are virtually unregulated when it comes to customer service. They can do whatever they want.
Cruise lines sail the enforcement-free seas
This situation with cruise lines is similar. But wait, you say. Didn't Princess Cruise Lines pay a $1 million fine for environmental crimes earlier this year? Yes, it did. But that was a parole violation from a 2017 criminal conviction. Princess had failed to establish and maintain an independent internal investigative office, which it had agreed to do under the terms of its plea deal with the Department of Justice.
No, cruise lines are apparently also exempt from any kind of regulation. Even the Centers for Disease Control released the cruise lines from any meaningful COVID restrictions at the earliest possible moment this summer, allowing the cruise industry to do as it pleased.
I can't find any evidence that the Federal Maritime Commission has been fining cruise lines for anything this year. The only meaningful involvement in regulating customer service has been creating an escrow account for refunds on the Crystal Cruises bankruptcy.
Not surprisingly, cruise lines aren't as reluctant to fine us. Last week, Carnival quietly updated its cruise contract, forcing customers to agree to pay a $500 fine if they acted unruly on their cruise.
Oh, the irony.
What's happening here?
It's obvious what is happening. Governments from the smallest municipality to the federal government are going easy on the travel industry, perhaps fearful that overregulation might push them out of business.
Imagine your highway patrol suspending operations because there might be a recession. It's nonsense. You don't stop enforcing the law to protect the travel industry.
We are traveling in a rule-free environment, no doubt about it. Travel companies know they can get away with anything. And in the coming months, they will try. Mark my words.
Your thoughts, please
Have you noticed a more arrogant attitude from your airline, hotel, cruise line — or any other travel company? When an industry knows it can violate the law without consequences, that's inevitable. Tell me your story and how it affected your trip. And I'd also love to get your prediction. What do you think will happen next? The comments are open.
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott fantasized about outrunning a police officer who's pulling him over for speeding. In a plane. "I believe we all have shared this thought at some point," he says. I would love to be able to fly away. It's really the upper hand most of us will never experience — unless you're the airline industry."
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