What just happened?
A look back at the craziest year for consumers since 2001 (and maybe ever)
What just happened?
We started 2021 with such optimism. COVID vaccines were about to become widely available and there was talk the pandemic would end by summer. And then things kind of fell apart after delta and omicron.
It feels like we're back where we started. But I'm not just talking about the pandemic. Here's a helpful summary of everything we're trying to forget — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good: Consumers scored several important victories.
The bad: We still had to endure substandard service and frequent meltdowns.
The ugly: In some respects, we were our own worst enemy.
Before we get to all of that, I'd love to get your opinion on 2021. What are your favorite — and least favorite — memories? What, if anything, did you learn? The comments section is open, and I can't wait for you to share your wisdom with the rest of us.
By the way, we are SO close!
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Consumers scored a few points, right?
Consumers had a pretty decent year in some respects. The most recent victory is the Marriott settlement with Pennsylvania's attorney general, which could kill those hated resort fees. I covered every twist and turn of this endless drama in this newsletter. I also helped my colleagues from the Today Show when they reported the story.
But have these despised fees actually disappeared? Not yet, and if I had to bet, I'd say many hotels will resist dropping them. It could be years, and maybe decades, before the fees go away completely. And you can be sure of this: They'll get replaced by something else.
The current administration has also tried to help consumers, notably in this summer's executive order on protecting the economy. It contained several proposals that affected air travelers, including one to enhance consumer access to airline flight information so that they can more easily find a broader set of available flights. The White House also has proposed new advertising rules to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive fees, as well as a proposal to address the failure of airlines to provide timely refunds for flights canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In November, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a $4.5 million settlement with Air Canada to resolve the airline's extreme delays in refunding thousands of consumers for flights to or from the United States that the carrier canceled or significantly changed after the pandemic outbreak.
I'd say all of this is a good start. But the attorney general needs to enforce its agreement next year. And the DOT still has a lot of other airlines to fine, notably TAP Air Portugal, which still hasn't returned money for thousands of flights canceled during the pandemic. And those White House proposals — well, they're still proposals.
Consumers had it bad (and I'm not talking about COVID)
Consumers also had a setback or two.
COVID was a rollercoaster ride in 2021 — first delta, then omicron. Some of us got vaxxed and traveled freely; others huddled in their homes, afraid to leave. Both approaches are entirely understandable.
Pandemics happen. But other things were within the control of governments and large companies like airlines. And they didn't really help.
Let's start with the government. American lawmakers and regulators cuddled up to the airlines so much in 2021, it’s nauseating. They supported airlines with a record bailout and also cracked down mercilessly on the passengers who lashed out at restrictive new rules. Funny, I thought the government was on our side. The powers that be also turned a blind eye to the service lapses and cancellations this summer, which happened despite the government aid.
Overall, companies treated their customers only slightly better than vampire bats do cattle, which is to say, they fed off us. They raised prices but offered horrible service (and I'm not just talking about airlines). A recent poll by Clear Channel found that only one-third of consumers trusted the brands they use, a stunningly low number, but given the already frayed relationship between consumers and businesses, it shouldn't be that surprising.
My nonprofit organization collected tens of thousands of complaints ranging from PayPal sucking money out of consumers' accounts to exploding appliances, and always with the same ending until my advocacy team swoops in to save the day. Without Elliott Advocacy, the company would probably walk away, unconcerned about the repercussions.
The Clear Channel study offers a way for businesses to build trust: provide a quality product that customers value, and do so transparently. It's simple, but too many companies still think there's a shortcut to profitability.
Did we do this to ourselves?
Maybe the debacle of 2021 isn't entirely the fault of avaricious businesses. Is it possible that we did this to ourselves? I ask because I've seen consumers engaging in self-destructive behavior in the last year.
Knocking the teeth out of a flight attendant's mouth because she told you to wear a mask is definitely crossing a line. But I've also seen other advocates try to knock each other out.
It's travel advisors, who are supposed to be on their customers’ side, coming after me because I'm trying to help. It's a cadre of Washington consumer advocacy organizations who can't stop bickering long enough to agree on anything.
Earlier this month, a blogger who shall remain nameless accused me of disseminating "fake news" when I reported on a car rental company that charged one of its customers a surprise $923 fee for returning a car to the wrong airport terminal. My executive director was understandably concerned, so she showed this unnamed blogger the receipts that proved my article was accurate. He reluctantly updated his story.
But what if that blogger, instead of trying to discredit me, had instead used his resources to do something to help the consumers reading his blog? You know, like advocating a case of his own? Or reporting on one of the many customer service shortcomings in the travel industry? Well, that might have helped a lot of people.
We need to do better in 2022
I wish 2021 had turned out a little differently. Less COVID, more consumer wins. I wish consumer advocates who claim to protect you would actually protect you.
Something tells me 2022 will be fraught with challenges. COVID is getting worse, again. The advocates are turning on each other. It's every man for himself.
Can we just skip to 2023?
What did you think about the year that was? The comments are open.
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott says he wanted to challenge himself on his latest work. "I used tan paper implementing white highlights with Micron pens in detailed illustrative line work that conveys hysteria and disgust," he explains. "My goal is to allow viewers to understand the stress that Fear Guy undergoes as a traveling entity." (Fear Guy is the hapless character in the middle of the art with the big eyes and the mask that's glued to his face.)