Jesse Robison

Jesse Robison

Perhaps not the best title choice for a column about airlines, but things won’t be the same for a long time where flying is concerned. Like many consumers, I long ago ceased being a fan of this industry due to its exploitative treatment of passengers.

Between ever-shrinking passenger space, excessive baggage fees that resulted in overhead storage conflicts, and numerous other policies that emphasized profits over fair treatment of consumers, I no longer considered flying to be a process that involved friendly skies. It had become something one endured when needing to travel long distances in a short amount of time.

Having experienced my share of mistreatment by various airlines in recent years, I lodged a complaint with my travel agent last year. Her candid response was that the companies no longer cared if consumers threatened to stop flying with them because they had an unlimited supply of customers. I wonder if they see it that way now?

I have been seeking refunds from two different airlines for over two months now, one for a flight that I was denied access due to a closed border, and another that never flew due to cancellation of the flight. My refund experience has been one of purposeful delay, muddled communication and groundless denial.

The first airline stalled long enough that it recently filed for bankruptcy protection. The company is not going out of business, but according to news reports intends to reorganize and start anew once the coronavirus concerns are resolved. I can likely kiss that refund goodbye, but I will remember how I was treated if it emerges from the bankruptcy reorganization.

The other American airline has refused to return my money for a flight they never flew and haven’t flown since, offering a credit that must be used by year-end. Their website told me I would receive a refund, and I was advised of the same by one of their employees, but I am still waiting for the company to do the right thing.

My situation is not an isolated case. If you are having trouble obtaining a refund, read Lori Rackl’s article in the April 9 edition of the Chicago Tribune titled, "Airlines are playing games: The fight to get refunds for coronavirus-canceled flights." According to the article, United Airlines is being sued in a class action for its failure to return money for tickets on canceled flights. The Department of Transportation has warned the airlines that they have a legal responsibility to make refunds for canceled flights, but that hasn’t stopped my carrier from its guileful behavior.

Prior to the advent of COVID-19, the airline industry had experienced years of record profits. Now these companies are seeking government aid, which is ultimately funded by the taxpayers while they purposefully deny valid refunds to those same people who are funding their bailout. Many of these taxpayers have also likely lost their jobs and need their refunds.

Approximately half of the airplanes used by America’s main carriers are currently mothballed. Daily passengers on domestic flights number in the thousands these days rather than the millions.

Before coronavirus hit, approximately half of all Americans took at least one flight a year. However, a recent National Geographic and Morning Consult of 2,200 Americans found that only 2 percent said they would fly at this time, and only 8 percent would consider doing so by this summer. It will be a long time before this industry returns to some semblance of normal, assuming it ever does.

Many consumers lack the resources or the confidence to fly at this time. Add the projections that we are likely dealing with COVID-19 implications for several years, and it isn’t hard to see the writing on the wall: The airline industry is in trouble, and it should not be alienating future customers with deceptive refund practices.

The industry has no choice but to change. Do not be surprised to see temperature-check gates for incoming and outgoing passengers as have been used in China for years since the SARS outbreak. Mask wearing and sanitization will likely become routine at every stage of the process — expect your luggage handles to be wiped clean with disinfectant.

Travelers who fail to pass health screening tests should be entitled to ticket refunds if they are not allowed to board flights. The days of knowingly flying sick because you do not want to lose your tickets should become a thing of the past. Non-refundable ticket policies needs to be adjusted for those with documented illness given the realities wrought by COVID-19.

Being stuck in the middle seat on airplanes will not be likely on numerous flights as many airlines are currently not taking bookings for these seats. The airlines are expected to crack down on carry-on items, which increase the potential for spreading illness. The benefit of that may be a lessening of the stampede to board and shove your baggage into the overhead compartment. Between strictly limiting carry-on and vacant middle seats, there should actually be some improvement in airplane atmosphere.

With the decreased demand, airlines should consider permanently mothballing the planes that have been designed to cram people into every available inch of space. From a health and comfort standpoint, do consumers a favor and keep the ones with better human spacing in service or at least modify the tuna-can versions.

Do not expect to see many bargain fares for quite some time. The industry will be slow to regain enough passengers to even begin to fill planes. Between vacant middle seats, decreased consumer demand and added hygiene costs, air travel will likely become more expensive.

As consumers, do your homework and select airlines that treated customers fairly now and who implement safe and reasonable policies for the future. The managers of this industry in free fall need to realize their future viability is no longer supported by an “unlimited supply of customers.” Being one flyer among many who have been given the run-around, I will be closely monitoring the carriers I choose for future flights.

Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.