Doctor, It Hurts When I Do This. Don't Do That.
THURSDAY, JULY 11, 2019 -- There are dozens of medical and psychological terms I could throw at you right now, but let's fall back on the nice, comfortable and totally Zen joke from the old Vaudeville comics Smith and Dale:

SMITH: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
DALE: Don't do that.

What's this got to do with business travel, neither Smith nor Dale would ask, but you might.

In the past several days an until-now obscure British regulator called the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has levied ferocious fines on British Airways and Marriott for their recent data breaches. The fines, around 280 million pounds--about $350 million--are clearly meant to send a message: Stop allowing hackers to steal the data you keep on your defenseless customers.

I say bravo. Hit 'em in the produce section. Hard. Repeatedly. Over and over until they get the message: Do what you have to do to make sure our data is secure. Pound more companies, in and out of travel, until they get the message, too.

In the few days since these levies were announced, some unctuous commentators have bemoaned the ICO's actions as unfair. Others, even dumber, say fines won't stop hacking.

Yes, they will. And we know they will because fines have worked on the travel industry before.

Remember the 1999 snowstorm when Northwest Airlines abandoned dozens of aircraft and thousands of flyers at the gates and on the tarmacs of Detroit/Metro? There was outrage, Congressional hearings and a lawsuit. Northwest settled before the suit went to court. Northwest paid pennies: just $7.1 million or about $1,000 per passenger.

Airlines learned what we could only call the anti-Smith-and-Dale lesson: If it doesn't hurt when you do this, keep doing that.

And they did, year after year, snowfall after snowfall, summer storm after summer storm. Flyers would be held prisoner for hours on aircraft without food, water and (sometimes) functioning toilets, all while airlines refused to return to the gate and let passengers disembark. It was the plague of flying earlier in the century.

It got so absurd that in 2009 three airlines--Continental, ExpressJet and Mesaba--thought nothing of stranding 47 passengers overnight in a tinny, tiny commuter jet. It was a scandal and, as you can see by my contemporaneous column, I was calling for massive fines while the rest of the world was blindly and ineffectually pursuing a wimpy "passenger's rights law."

My argument then, as it is today: Only money matters to airlines. Hit 'em in the produce section. Hard. Repeatedly. Over and over. Until it hurts when they do this.

Several months later, the Transportation Department hit the carriers in the produce section. Hard. A then-unprecedented fine of $175,000, the equivalent of $3,700 for each of the 47 passenger they'd held hostage. Then the DOT hit them again: In 2010, it decreed that aircraft held on a tarmac for more than three hours would cost the airlines as much as $27,500 per flyer.

Led by United's then-chief executive Jeff Smisek, the airlines were apoplectic. He was outraged that it hurt when they did this.

"The government, by God, says, 'We're going to fine you $27,500,' " Smisek whined. "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to cancel the flight. In the face of a fine like that, we're going to cancel a lot of flights."

Airlines didn't cancel a lot of flights and, yet, tarmac holds have almost completely disappeared. Facing a fine of $27,500 a passenger, the airlines fixed the problem. They scheduled better, they planned better and, most important of all, they realized it would hurt financially if they did this.

SMITH: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
DALE: Don't do that.

You could say that data hacks are out of the airlines' and hotels' control. So's the weather. Yet airlines, facing financial punches in the produce section, have figured out how to manage the weather without holding us hostage on tarmacs. Faced with a financial hammer of mammoth fines for allowing hackers to steal our data, airlines and hotels will figure out how to stop the hacks.

Of course, the story doesn't end here. Marriott says it is "disappointed" by its 99 million pound fine and will "vigorously defend its position." British Airways says it is "disappointed" by its 183 million pound fine and will "defend the airline’s position vigorously."

All this "disappointment" and "vigor" is the current-day version of Smisek raging in 2010. What are BA and Marriott gonna say? That they should be allowed to continue to pay no attention to data security?

The bottom line with the travel industry is always the bottom line: Hit 'em in the produce section hard enough and frequently enough and they get the message. They will fix the problem rather than pay the regulators. They'll be "disappointed" and they'll protest "vigorously," but they'll fix the problem rather than take too many hits in the produce section. They stop when it hurts to do this.

SMITH: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
DALE: Don't do that.

Which brings us to another despicable practice: resort fees. Airlines long ago were banned from jacking up the final price of a ticket with mandatory "optional" fees piled atop their advertised price. Not so the lodging industry. They've long gotten away with resort fees. Those have now morphed into "destination fees" so that urban lodgings can get in on the scam. Sadly, the FTC has given its bureaucratic blessing to these fees.

But some state attorneys general are less sure. In fact, they believe hotels and resorts are playing hide-and-seek, bait-and-switch games with these burgeoning fees. District of Columbia attorney general Karl Racine sued Marriott this week for "hiding the true price of hotel rooms from consumers." His official complaint called Marriott's practice "a straight-forward price deception case."

I have no idea if other state attorneys general will follow suit with suits. I hope they do and sue the other chains, too. And I hope judges and juries hit 'em in the produce section. Hard and repeatedly.

I look forward to the day when we Smith-and-Dale the lodging industry on these phony fees.