THE BLOG

Air Travel 2010: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

12/06/2010 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The past year has been very eventful for airline passengers. We've seen big shifts in many facets of air travel. Crude terror plots failed to harm anyone, but prompted massive reaction from the DHS and TSA in the form of new rules, equipment, and procedures. The Department of Transportation's (DOT) new passenger protection rules prompted loud protests and predictions of doom from the airlines. The airlines continued to invent new "fees" to increase their bottom lines. On the other hand, the new DOT rules didn't bring about Armageddon, and are working, the travel industry saw a major rebound in profits, and we at Flyersrights.org are hearing stories from our members about apparent shift in many airlines' attitudes.

With apologies to Sergio Leone, let's look at the Ugly, the Bad, and the Good for the year in air travel.

The Ugly is the continuing reality of terrorist threats to airline travel. The Tighty Whitey bomber's failed attempts in December, 2009, and the dangerous ink cartridges from Yemen in October of this year are proof of this. However, TSA knee-jerk reactions have also been pretty ugly. They ruled that passengers on arriving international flights had to stay seated for the last hour of the flight with nothing in their laps. Even uglier, TSA began rolling out full body scanners and intrusive pat downs that were being described as "molestation" and "virtual skinny dip."

The Bad includes several international flights, exempt from the Three-Hour Tarmac rule, which sat on the tarmac for over three hours, spurring the DOT to consider including them in the Three-Hour rule. Airlines and their surrogates claimed that the new rule had dire, unintended consequences, as canceled flights were up this year. The GAO will do a study on that when a more reasonable sampling period has passed. Airline overscheduling continued to contribute to flight delays, as did several bouts of severe weather. Also, passengers were bumped from oversold flights as airlines continued to reduce capacity to assure high load factors and a better bottom line.

The Good, on the other hand, is very encouraging. First, the DOT's Three-Hour Tarmac rule, advocated by Flyersrights.org, worked. Extended tarmac delays since the April implementation have dropped from hundreds a month to single-digit numbers each month. The death of civilization predicted by the airlines simply did not happen.

The travel industry saw a major rebound in profits in 2010, as the worst of the recession passed. The airlines' unbundling of "ancillary fees" that so enraged the flying public was the major contributor to their profitability.

The good news continued this fall as travel demand prompted airlines to add flights, making travel a little easier for us all. Moreover, Flyersrights.org began hearing members' stories of shifting airline attitudes toward passengers. We have many reports of airline good deeds, such as providing vouchers and crediting frequent flyer miles as gestures of good will after long flight delays on the tarmac and other delay issues.

Finally, the TSA actually showed signs of listening to the public outcry over their draconian security measures. The "Stay Seated" rule was very short-lived, as international travellers refused to put up with it. One lone citizen, Brian Sodergren, expressed his disgust with the new body scanners and their alternative, the intrusive pat downs, by suggesting and Opt Out Day on Thanksgiving. While the press made his gesture into something it was never meant to be, the result of that and other protests seems to have been a reassessment within the DHS and the TSA. Already, pilots are relieved of the obligation to go through the scanners, and these government agencies are voicing a much more conciliatory line.

For 2011, Flyersrights will continue to fight for airline passenger rights. Congress must codify the DOT rule into federal law, fares and fees must become much more transparent, international flights must be brought under the Three-Hour Rule, and sanity must be restored to the nation's airport security procedures. So hang in there, fellow passengers, and help us tell the government to give us hope, not grope.