THE BLOG
11/05/2014 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Republicans Won -- But Have Travelers Lost?

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Have the bad guys won? It sure looks that way.

The Republicans took over control of the US Senate in yesterday's midterm elections. Now I'm not saying Republicans are the bad guys, but observers believe their victory practically guarantees the passage of a controversial airline industry bill that ensures it can deceive its customers about airfares.

Indeed, every major industry -- from cruise lines to wireless companies -- could now have its way with us, unfettered by "burdensome" state and federal regulation, if the experts are to be believed. Consumers are powerless to stop it.

I hope the talking heads on TV are wrong. I hope our elected officials remember who they're representing.

But who am I kidding? We know who paid the bill for this election and it wasn't us. So, like you, I'm hoping for the best but preparing for the worst: two or more years of Washington's indifference, if not hostility, to consumer interests.

How will we know if our worst fears will be realized? Simple. Look for laissez-faire regulation coming from Washington after January. But in the near term, you can see the signs in a more emboldened rhetoric coming from the industry.

For example:

"Why don't you start your own airline?"

Airline industry sympathizers are depositing this "suggestion" in blog comments and emails with greater frequency. The intended message: Don't criticize us until you walk in our shoes and experience our paper-thin margins and high operating costs. I get that. I'm not a former airline employee who runs an industry fan site, nor will I ever be.

But the recommendation is patently absurd on several levels. First, unless Richard Branson is saying it, the person making it has never started his or her airline. So I could also as easily say: "Why don't you start your own airline?" But, above all, it suggests the only people who can even talk about an industry are the insiders who understand it. Customers should just shut up, pay for their tickets, and be grateful for a safe arrival.

That's ridiculous. We have every right to talk about our airline experiences, and the insiders who complain have an obligation to shut up and listen. As a matter of fact, why don't they sit in one of those tiny economy class seats, pay those ridiculous "ancillary" fees and deal with a hateful ticket agent?

"Why aren't you on our side?"

This seemingly reasonable suggestion comes from folks in almost every industry, not just travel. You should represent our views, they say. You have an obligation. Never mind that I'm a consumer advocate, so I obviously represent the other side.

An industry trade organization recently went through the trouble of paying an outside reputation management firm to make that case to my editors. They sent annotated copies of my columns, accusing me of an already well-disclosed bias. They demanded meetings to discuss this already well-disclosed bias. Perhaps not coincidentally, the campaign coincided with a series of anonymous online attacks.

And they failed. Why? Because these operatives were accusing me of doing my job -- high praise, no matter who it comes from. And the anonymous jabs? Those proved to be self-defeating because they were obviously untrue and made the mistake of targeting my family. Ouch. That's hitting below the belt and won't even be read.

Still, like the "start your own airline" comment, it's a sign that the industry is feeling more confident.

"If you don't like the way we treat you, why don't you try the competition?"

Ah, the myth of choice! When the industry is emboldened, they like to defiantly say "take it or leave it." And believe me, we would leave it -- if we felt as if we had a real choice. Industry consolidation has squeezed much of the competition out of the system. With the possible exception of the hotel industry, we don't have any meaningful options. They know that, and if they don't, they're as intellectually challenged as their suggestions sound. How quickly they forget the full-court press to push government regulators to approve their little mergers. You know, the ones that left us with only a few big companies controlling everything.

The unfortunate truth is, many of us don't have a practical choice. We're in a market served by one or two airlines, so we pay the fares they demand or we drive. And don't look now, but the cruise industry is becoming even more consolidated. Rental cars are pretty uncompetitive, too, in certain markets. Choice is all but nonexistent. Try renting a car if you don't believe me.

When I hear all of these insincere, provocative questions, it becomes clear that we're at a turning point. The bad guys feel they can win rhetorical war, stamp out criticism and see a clear path to unlimited profits. Mission accomplished!

I can only hope that the new Senate majority will take its mandate in a more senatorial way than the House of Representatives, and look after the interests of their constituents. Many of the ideas that put the new Republican majority in office have merit: smaller government, lower taxes, less government interference in a free market.

But people still need protection from the avarice and recklessness that often infects corporate America. Maybe there are a few "compassionate" conservatives left.

I guess we're about to find out.

After you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a newsletter and you'll definitely want to order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Photo: Shutterstock.