What to expect this year
COVID-19 is out, travel disruptions are in — and customer service is circling the drain
Welcome to 2022!
Thought we'd never make it, but here we are. If you're reading this, you survived a bout of inflation, a pandemic of bad customer service and another two waves of COVID-19. Congratulations.
But what lies ahead? I've already written about the coming year in generalities. For example, I've predicted that more uncertainty, with higher prices and new fees, are in store. But you pressed me for specifics, and the Fox affiliate in Austin asked me to be on the the newscast next week, so here goes!
Making predictions is a dangerous game, especially in a pandemic that's been as unpredictable as COVID. But when has that ever stopped me? I'm calling an end to the pandemic, at least when it comes to travel. But expect a sequel to the travel disruptions. Customer service will probably not improve.
Your predictions, please
Don't let me do this alone. What are your predictions for 2022? The comments are open.
What’s going to happen to COVID?
One way or another, COVID will end this year.
Either omicron will be the pandemic's last gasp or we'll act like it is. You don't have to be a doctor to make this prediction. All you have to do is understand human nature or read emails from your readers.
And you tell me that you're done with the pandemic, even if the pandemic isn't done with you.
I mean, look at how many people are cruising right now, despite the risks — and the crazy stories we've been reading. (You have to check out Michelle Couch-Friedman's article on the couple detained on board by NCL. It's shocking!) The CDC on Thursday warned Americans to avoid cruising, regardless of vaccination status.
Is anyone listening? More than half of Americans (53 percent) plan to take a vacation in the next three months, according to the latest Portrait of American Travelers survey from MMGY Global, a communications firm. That's up three percentage points from the summer.
"The vast majority of vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers are planning trips in the months ahead," the survey cheerfully concluded.
Readers tell me they're tired of waiting and they're just going to go, no matter what obstacles or dangers lie ahead. PCR tests? They'll take 'em as often as they have to. Danger of infection? They're boosted, and they feel safe. Health risks? Get insurance and a medical evacuation membership.
My prediction: By this summer, we'll stop talking about COVID and move on to something else, like the 2022 midterm elections. That should be interesting.
But this all assumes we can even get to where we need to go.
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Even when COVID ends, the travel disruptions won't
Attention, airline passengers and car rental customers: Even if we get the "all clear" from COVID, you should still expect to see widespread and frequent disruptions.
Why? Airlines dramatically reduced their employee rolls in 2020 and 2021, falsely believing demand would never come back. But travel did come back. Air travelers returned in droves, and car rental customers pushed demand to such high levels that it created a shortage of vehicles.
I don't see any of that letting up in 2022. Airlines are still months away from solving their staffing problems. The chip shortages and fleet problems persist.
On the airline side, the cuts were simply too deep during the pandemic. American Airlines laid off 20 percent of its staff. United Airlines cut tens of thousands of jobs and 30 percent of its administrative staff. The major car rental companies gutted their fleets. In one notable case, thousands of rental cars were literally burned (later ruled an "accident" by investigators).
It's going to take a year or more to get back to where we were. And by then, who knows what demand will be? If this fall is any indication, it could be at record levels, prolonging the shortage of rental cars and flights.
My prediction: Mass cancellations and car rental shortages will not end in 2022. They may get worse.
But this isn't just a travel industry problem. It affects everyone.
Bad customer service? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet
No matter what industry you're talking about, customer service deteriorated this year. It will happen again next year. The average customer service score for all businesses monitored by the American Customer Satisfaction Index is 73.7, which is on the line between a "C" and "C-." Terrible!
Last summer, an Arizona State University study found that customer service was "worse than ever" and that more people were angry about it. I think I know why they didn't follow up to see how much worse it got this year.
Why even bother? Isn't it obvious?
If it isn't, I could show you the 10,000 complaints we received from consumers in 2021. Each grievance is a case study in terrible customer service. And instead of trying to improve, businesses are focused on an entirely different — and selfish — goal.
Here's a statistic to ponder: Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of customer service and support leaders say their top priority for 2022 is "growing" their business. That's according to a survey by Gartner earlier this year.
Funny, but I thought customer service and support leaders were meant to, you know, provide service and support. They care much more about their bottom line than they do about you.
My prediction: Customer service will continue to slide as businesses focus on short-term earnings. We'll be having this conversation all year.
Alright, those are the major predictions. How about a few more?
And now, the lightning round
I boldly predict:
The removal of all mask rules on mass transit by the end of this year.
At least one major domestic airline bankruptcy.
Or a major domestic airline merger. (Or both.)
The collapse of at least one big loyalty program.
New consumer protection legislation for air travelers. (I'm kidding.)
Will any of this actually happen? Your guess is as good as mine.
Happy New Year!
What are your predictions for 2022? The comments are open.
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott tried to illustrate the fear and uncertainty of 2022 in his latest work. "This piece visualizes the anticipation of what the future holds for the common COVID-worn traveler," he says. "Strap yourself in."