Everything's Rotten Normal
On the Road Again
THURSDAY, JUNE 24, 2021 -- You wanted "normal" again. You craved it, begged for it, told anyone who'd listen that all you wanted after 15 months of pandemic was to get back to "normal."

You got it: Things are rotten on the road again. I mean, rotten like it's 1999 normal. Feel better now?

This shouldn't surprise you. Hotels and airlines are fundamentally no different than when we mostly abandoned the road last March and hunkered down to wait out the Coronavirus. But perhaps in the intervening months you'd forgotten how much airlines and hotels hated their customers? Or maybe you thought the $100 billion or more in bailouts and loans we threw at airlines and hotels would soften them up, make them a little less contemptuous of us? After all, we're not just the travelers who fill their coffers with our custom. We're also the gullible taxpayers whose wallets got siphoned for those bailout bucks.

But, no, you never learn. You've gotten back on the road a little and quickly realized that nothing has fundamentally changed. Airlines and hotels despise us, think we're rubes and will stop at nothing to charge us more and give us less.

We are, in every sense of the word that matters to travelers, back to "normal" on the road.

How would you like your humbling dose of "normal" this week?

Nostalgic? American Airlines has reduced the size of the Biscoff cookies it distributes--and switched to a single speculoos per serving instead of the traditional two-pack. This would be hilariously chintzy if we hadn't already lived through this back in 2007 when United Airlines reduced the size of its Biscoff offering.

Despicable? Frontier Airlines this week began breaking out a $3 roundtrip--or $1.59 one-way--"COVID recovery" fee. The reaction to that one was so intense that even Frontier's sleazy chief executive, Barry Biffle--one of the notorious "Killer Bs" who formerly ran Spirit and US Airways--had to back off. The fee died in a day, possibly because Frontier also had just ended most of its Coronavirus safety protocols.

Infuriating? Marriott is telling its far-flung franchises that they must resume honoring the breakfast benefit offered to some elite members of Marriott Bonvoy. But the mandate, supposedly effective July 1, is mostly meaningless since Marriott rarely penalized lodgings that refused to honor the benefit in the before times. And let's not suggest Marriott is alone here. Most other chains continue to permit their limited-service hotel brands to offer "grab-and-go" bags instead of the full breakfasts they advertise and promote. Even at the top end--Hyatt's clumsily named Globalist Level--super-elite guests must consult a chart to see which particular Hyatt-aligned properties are allowed to blow off the breakfast benefit.

Disgusting? As call-center waiting times stretched to four or five hours in recent days, airlines began begging for volunteers to man the telephone lines. American Airlines went even further. It imposed mandatory overtime on call-center employees, many of whom are part-timers incapable of working the extra hours. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines is begging for volunteers because it can't keep Sky Clubs clean with existing staff, most of whom are minimum-wage employees of third-party firms. All carriers seem to be having trouble delivering checked bags to airport baggage-claim carousels in a timely manner because the leisure flyers who are the bulk of current customers check more luggage than the average business traveler. And why would airlines hire more baggage handlers, right?

Spiteful? Hoteliers have long railed against the rising cost of housekeeping even though many already have switched to outside suppliers who employ minimum-wage staffers. During the pandemic, hotels slashed costs by temporarily eliminating daily housekeeping, making it an on-request perk rather than a standard amenity. Now that the pandemic is slowly easing--at least in the United States--more than a few hotels are planning to make the elimination of daily housekeeping a permanent "feature." The goal? Drive down costs by permitting a hotel to lay off room cleaners and laundry-room workers.

Inevitable? The tens of billions of dollars that we handed over to the airlines in at least three separate tranches was earmarked to keep employees--pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, ramp workers, ticket agents, baggage handlers--on the payroll. But while taking that "employee" money with the metaphoric left hand, carriers were stealing it with the right. They arranged huge staff buyouts, saying goodbye to tens of thousands of trained employees. When leisure flying began picking up this spring, the airlines were caught short-staffed and flight cancellations and delays began to spike. Just this week, American Airlines dumped hundreds of flights because it couldn't staff them. It then proactively cancelled about 1% of its schedule through mid-July fearing an uncontrolled early-summer meltdown. All those tens of billions we gifted the carriers to keep their staffs at the ready? No one at the airlines even says they're sorry. We were dumb enough to listen to their sob story and they took us for billions.

So you wanted "normal" in your post-pandemic life? Welcome back to the road. Things are rotten here. Or, in other words, normal.