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The problem: While the final bill clamps down on exorbitant foreign exchange fees, it gives credit card companies a license to continue pursuing a parallel fee the industry has been quietly developing.
Here’s the relevant language in the bill:
(3) REASONABLE CURRENCY EXCHANGE FEE- With respect to a credit card account under an open end consumer credit plan, the creditor may impose a fee for exchanging United States currency with foreign currency in an account transaction, only if–
(A) such fee reasonably reflects the costs incurred by the creditor to perform such currency exchange;
(B) the creditor discloses publicly its method for calculating such fee; and
(C) the primary Federal regulator of such creditor determines that the method for calculating such fee complies with this
In other words, foreign currency exchange fees may only be imposed in an account transaction if the fee reasonably reflects costs incurred by the creditor and the creditor publicly discloses its method for calculating the fee.
Here’s the problem. Credit card companies are quietly shifting away from currency exchange fees. They’re replacing them with foreign transaction fees, which cover any purchase made across the border — even if it’s in dollars.
These fees are not covered by the bill.
For example, one reader was recently hit with a mysterious three percent fee on her Citibank card when she traveled to Ecuador. The official currency of Ecuador is the greenback. I asked Citi about the fee, and a company spokesman clarified.
The three percent foreign exchange transaction fee is applied to an account regardless of currency at point of sale to all transactions made in a foreign country. This encompasses a foreign purchase that is either converted into US dollars or a foreign purchase in US dollars.
So even if there’s no money to exchange, the credit card company still tacks on a three percent fee on every cross-border purchase. No reasonable person who reads the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 would conclude that these transaction fees — which are separate from exchange fees — are addressed anywhere in the bill.
Credit card companies will be able to fly through this loophole with impunity before the ink has a chance to dry on the new law.
Congress can still tighten the bill to prevent this kind of abuse. Barney Frank, chairman of the committee on financial services, still has the ability to add language to the bill if it passes in the Senate today, as it is widely expected to.
This might be a good time to let the Congressman know that apart from soon-to-be-regulated foreign exchange fees, credit card companies should not have the ability to charge any surcharge for purchases made overseas.
These purchases don’t cost any more money to credit card companies, and they shouldn’t for us either.
First, the bad news: European airlines still routinely deceive customers when it comes to air fares, according to a new report by the EU. But there’s also good news — it’s not happening as often, thanks to tighter government regulation.
“Many people are attracted to buying a ticket from one of these sites by their very low prices,” says the EU’s chief consumer advocate, Meglena Kuneva. “However, what they do not realize is that the price quoted does not include items such as tax, etc. In the end the person ends up paying much more than was initially advertised. This is clearly forbidden by EU law.”
Kuneva, who made the comments on her blog this morning, unveiled the results of the work the EU undertook over the last two years to clean up airline ticket selling Web sites.
“There were – and still are – serious problems in this area,” she notes, adding, “There is more work to be done.”
The outcome of the work we have done in this field is encouraging. In 2007 the Commission coordinated a simultaneous investigation of airline Web sites by the national authorities that enforce consumer legislation, known as a “sweep”. Many serious breaches were discovered. Almost all of these infringements have now been resolved, and I’d like to congratulate the national authorities for their work on this. Of course, things are by no means perfect and we still have work to do.
Of 67 airline sites examined, 16 complied fully with EU legislation and are committed to maintaining these standards, Kuneva says. Another 40 airlines immediately gave the EU a commitment to correct their sites when they were informed about the problems identified.
The EU leads the world when it comes to consumer protection for airline passengers. But it needs help. In a gesture that would be unthinkable in the United States, the commissioner appealed to passengers for help.
Most importantly, you, the consumer, have a decisive role to play in keeping up pressure on airlines not to continue or slip back to unacceptable behavior. Nobody is better placed than the customer to immediately spot dubious practices and to complain to companies, to consumer bodies and to their national authorities.
If airlines know that consumers are well-informed and watchful, and will not let them easily get away with illegal conduct, the likelihood is much higher that they will play by the rules.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see the government take the passenger’s side here in the States, for a change?
Any day now, Google Voice — an application that integrates voice mail, phone service and e-mail — will be released to the general public. As someone who has tested Voice since its introduction, here’s my advice to travelers: Get your number as soon as you can.
Google Voice is a personal communication hub. Incoming calls can be routed to a phone, cell phone or transcribed and sent as an e-mail. (The predecessor to Voice was, appropriately, called Grand Central.)
The application is so feature-rich, I’m not even going to bother trying to describe everything it does — except to say that like almost everything else Google does, it’s free.
For example, here’s how to route calls to your phones.
To say that Voice has the potential to change the way you think of the phone would be no understatement.
The ability to check your voice mail messages from any PC (something that used to be the exclusive domain of corporations with million-dollar IT budgets) is liberating. You can also screen your phone calls or send them straight to voice mail, which can be really useful when you’re on the road with an iffy cell phone connection or out of the country, trying to avoid usurious roaming charges.
But my favorite Google Voice feature is the ability to transcribe your voice mails into text. It is also my least favorite.
Let’s just say the technology is less than perfect. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t, it’s hilarious.
Here are a few messages that landed in my “in” box recently:
hi chris my name is neil i’m a freak the return your page i was gonna send you an email but i don’t think i have an actor
Nothing kinky going on here. The message from Neil said he was a frequent reader of my page, but that he doesn’t have an accurate e-mail address for me.
hi christopher this is mary recruitment hide emailed you back on april the twentieth about prances cruises
No, Mary’s last name isn’t “recruitment” and there’s no prances cruise line.
hey chris it’s in the that i just want to give you head
Actually, that was from a colleague who was calling with the completely honorable intention of giving me a heads-up on a story I was expecting.
I like Google Voice for the way it makes travel easier, but I think I’ll keep it for the laughs.
The roundtrip airfare from Brussels to New York on the European online travel site eDreams was €337 — until Alisa Schlossberg clicked on the “buy” button. Then it jumped to €592, creating an eNightmare.
Schlossberg, a software consultant who lives in Antwerp, Belgium, thought it was a simple misunderstanding. “After all, I had purchased, paid and received a confirmation from the site,” she says.
But that’s not the way eDreams saw it. “Unfortunately, your ticket fare expired when we tried to issue your booking and the fare went up in 251 euros,” Luis Alberdi, a company spokesman, wrote to her after I asked about her ticket. “We do apologize for any inconvenience caused by it.”
Can an online travel agency do that? Yes. And more of them are, to hear travelers like Schlossberg and others talk about it. At a time when more tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars than ever are being booked online, frustrations with the booking process are growing.
The complaints can be divided into several broad categories:
Bait and switch. You thought you’d locked in a price, but were asked to pay more. Either surcharges and fees were added, or the ticket was completely re-priced.
Double booking. Your Web browser freezes during the booking process, you page back and make a reservation, only to find you’re now the proud owner of two nonrefundable reservations.
Sleight of hand. The site offers a ticket or hotel room, but once you try to book, you find out the tickets are gone. If you’re buying a vacation package, the site may offer you an alternate destination — usually at a higher price.
What’s going on here? There are two explanations: one put forth by the travel industry, and the other by irritated consumers.
“This predates the Internet,” explains Chicago-based online consultant Bruce Mainzer. He says the reservations systems used by travel agents showed the airline seats and hotel rooms in real time. When more than one person tried to book the same item, the system accepted one request and rejected the other.
“As more and more consumers started accessing these same computerized reservation systems through the Internet, they are getting the same type of mixed signals when they go to book,” he says. “The last seat may have been grabbed by someone else.”
Another theory — so far unproven — is that the Web sites, far from being helpless victims, are leveraging technology to squeeze every last dollar from travelers. Customers contend that Web sites use so-called “cookies” (the crumbs of information you leave behind when you visit a site) to control virtually every aspect of the booking experience. Based on that data, sites can display a higher or lower price or even deny the sale.
Consider what happened when Melissa Gomez tried to buy an air and hotel package through one of the major online travel agencies recently. “After I filled out all the information and gave my credit card, the transaction could not be processed,” she remembers. “After three failed attempts, I had to call customer service.” The agency charged her an extra $25 for making the reservation by phone. Why didn’t the sale go through? A representative told Gomez the airline inventory wasn’t “up to date” on the site. But were they really just trying to make an extra $25?
Whether these failed online bookings are innocent hiccups from an overloaded reservations system or secretive efforts to cash in on our technology ignorance, the real question is: How do we deal with it?
I asked experts for their opinions.
1. Don’t give up.
Sometimes it really is just a glitch, nothing more. Try to search for the fare or hotel room again, and if that doesn’t work, phone the online travel agency, says Rob Käll, president of Bookt, a Web services provider to the hotel and vacation rental industry. “If you don’t have any luck,” he adds, “try the hotel or airline directly.”
2. Call for help.
If your travel site doesn’t work, try someone whose system does — such as a travel agent. “In most cases a real travel agent can check the price to see if it’s available and also book it at the same price,” says Bruce Fisher, Honolulu-based operator of a vacation package site, Hawaii-Aloha.com. A competent agent understands the perils of booking online and can often price-match. What’s more, their systems can be faster and more reliable than the one you’re using to buy your trip. It’s worth noting that the advice isn’t free — agents charge a booking fee for their services.
3. Take your best shot.
If you find a price online and try to buy it, but are denied, your first step is to gather evidence. “Take a screen shot of the page with the fare you were promised and contact the travel site,” says Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive, a New York marketing agency. “Most consumers assume that if it’s an online service they can’t speak to someone. That’s not the case.” He’s right. I’ve seen travelers prevail in a dispute with a travel company or bank because they had screen shots.
4. Cite the law.
I’m not going to go into details about how to complain to a travel company — I have a section on my blog dedicated to that — but I would add one thing: In addition to a brief, polite e-mail with your screen shots, it may help to cite any laws that apply to your situation. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has a useful guide on bait advertising with chapter and verse of applicable federal law. (Bait advertising is an alluring but insincere offer to sell a product the advertiser in truth does not intend to sell.) If a company thinks it’s breaking the law, it is far likelier to see things your way.
Online agencies and reservations systems are aware of the problem and are working to fix it, says Pablo O’Brien, the general manager of Yahoo! Travel. Users should expect “gradual improvement in system performance,” he told me. Those much-needed upgrades will allow travel companies to rely less on a process called “caching” — or storing potentially outdated prices on their servers, where they can be accessed by customers. But the fixes won’t happen overnight.
I had a lengthy conversation with a representative from Amadeus, one of the companies that handle reservations, and came away with the impression that the technology already exists to eliminate most of these problems. I also felt that a few common-sense strategies such as the ones I just mentioned could prevent most of these booking snafus.
Common sense and a little tech savvy is also important. “If a traveler uses their browser’s back button, they are essentially going back to an old display, not a refreshed display,” explained Alix Arguelles, director of product management and support services for Amadeus. “Browsers settings should be set for ‘refresh every time’ to help guarantee fresh data.”
But I’m not sure this problem will vanish any time soon. In addition to the conspiracy theorists who believe these system “troubles” are a thinly-veiled money grab, there are people on the other side who think the current reservations systems and the Web sites that book travel through them work just fine, thank you very much.
Alex Bainbridge, a UK-based travel technology consultant, capably represented that point of view when he called these issues a “minor inconvenience” that would be too expensive to repair. “People should get on with their lives and be grateful that affordable flights exist,” he said.
Maybe he has a point. Maybe we should just shut up and travel.
Question: I’m having a problem with a travel insurance claim. We went on a Celebrity cruise to the Mediterranean more than a year ago. Luckily, we all paid premiums for hospitalization insurance, because I became deathly ill with bronchitis requiring trips to sick bay to see the doctors, who administered breathing treatments, antibiotics and a chest X-ray.
All this cost $675. After our return, I immediately put in a claim for my medical expenses. After many phone calls that were never returned, I finally received a letter from another insurance company, which had assumed the original insurance company’s claims, assuring me that eventually I would be paid.
Recently, I received another letter from Universal Assurance Group saying my claim had been approved and it’s only a matter of time until I receive payment. It has been more than a year since the cruise and I think I’m just about due for my refund. What do you think? — Anita Isaia, Tamarac, Fla.
Answer: I think your claim should have been processed and paid a year ago. And it probably would have — if it had been a real insurance policy.
Had you taken a little time to read the fine print when you booked your cruise, you would have seen that this is technically not travel insurance, but “protection.” What’s the difference? Mainly, your policy is cheaper than a comparable travel insurance policy, but it’s also not regulated by the state. So if you have a problem with, say, a late payment, you could be out of luck.
I’m a little skeptical of any product that sells itself as “insurance” but doesn’t play by the same rules as the other insurance companies. As a matter of fact, I’ve followed this particular company for a few years as it has changed names and relocated to various states, always offering a form of traveler “protection.” It’s a troubling pattern.
Your best protection against a travel insurance policy that isn’t a real policy is a reliable travel agent and paying attention to the details. A legitimate travel pro will offer you several policies with a proven track record and take the time to explain the differences. It’s up to you to take a hard look at each to decide which one is right.
Why cut corners on travel insurance? It’s not as if you’re settling for a hostel when you want a five-star hotel. The only time you’ll notice a difference is when you have to make a claim. So you have to ask yourself: Do you feel lucky?
I can’t say whether the trip “protection” you had was legit or not. What I can say is that I’ve heard from many customers who are unhappy with the coverage offered by trip “protection” like yours. And that I would think twice before buying anything other than bona fide travel insurance, if it were my cruise.
I contacted Universal Assurance Group and asked it to review your case. You received a $675 check a few days later.
Scott McCartney writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat” column and is the author of the new book “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” With the travel season about to take off, I asked him for his thoughts on flying in the summer of 2009.
Q: What should air travelers expect this summer?
McCartney: I think this will actually be a very good summer to travel, if you can afford it. The recession has lowered ticket prices considerably, left hotel rooms far more available at lower prices and reduced congestion at airports and in the skies so flights are running more on time.
The dollar has rebounded some, and so it’s a good year to venture overseas. Crowds should be smaller and merchants should be more anxious for your business. We may well look back on this year and say there was a window of opportunity when the airline system and major tourist destinations didn’t bog down as much under the weight of summer crowds and travelers actually had the upper hand.
I’m taking my family to Europe — tickets were about half the price of what I probably would have paid last year. Hotel rooms seem to have good availability using points or reasonable rates in dollars. I just think that if you are able to do it financially, it’s a great time to go.
Q: I really like the subtitle to your book, “How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” What do you think is more important to travelers — dignity, sanity or intact wallet?
McCartney: Thanks. Full disclosure: It was my wife’s idea.
I think it depends on the traveler, but for most, the wallet is the bottom line. Travelers will endure a lot to save a few bucks — just look at the popularity of discount European airlines and the long bus rides, infrequent service, high fees, etc. that people put up with for a cheap fare. While indignities anger them and inane experiences do make them crazy, getting gouged is what really sends people over the edge with airlines.
I think to some extent it’s a reflection of the animosity travelers have toward airlines. Airlines do bad things to people, and people remember. Goodwill and warm consumer feelings get ruined when a bag is lost, a flight is canceled, a traveler is bumped, a crew times out leaving a planeload stranded. What’s more, airlines make the money part of the experience so difficult — changing prices, limited availability, etc, etc. You go to a car dealer to buy a car thinking that salesman is out to take as much advantage of you as possible, and you know you likely won’t get as good a deal as the guy next to you. You just assume that. And I think it’s much the same with airlines. Airlines battle their customers over money — not a good position to be in.
Q: I noticed that almost the entire book is dedicated to air travel. There’s a brief chapter on hotels and cruises. Why did you decide to emphasize air travel?
McCartney: You’re right — 29 pages on hotels and cruises in a 300-page book, so about 90 percent on airlines. There’s also stuff early on picking the right vacation and some general travel experience stuff.
The reason is that I believe the air part of any trip has the greatest potential for disruption. Vacations get ruined by the flight there or the flight home. Business travelers rarely lose contracts or have their lives turned upside down by hotels. Yet airlines dictate much of how they get their job done. The penalty for airline problems is severe for travelers. The airline ticket is a far more complicated transaction than renting a car or a hotel room. And airline-related issues stretch far: frequent flier programs, first-class upgrades, baggage service and fees, security and airport hassles–you name it.
I also believe that the airplane trip holds the greatest fascination for people. Soaring into the sky and traveling at 500 miles per hour still amazes us, and the operation of airlines today is enormously complex. I wanted to explain to people how it works — from how airlines price tickets to how the FAA operates the air-traffic control system. By understanding how things work, travelers are better prepared.
Bottom line: Flying is where people need the most help. The goal of the book is to help people improve their travels, and 90 percent of that does come on the airline side.
Q: How often do you fly, and if you don’t mind me asking, which loyalty programs do you participate in?
McCartney: I fly a couple of times each month. Not every week, but a mixture of long trips where I’m working on multiple stories and quick out-and-back trips to see a particular airline or report a particular angle.
I try to spread my flying out so I get to compare different airlines first-hand and try different hotels. I’ll take a trip just to try out a new airline and look for interesting innovations. I’m a member of the loyalty program at Delta, American, United, Continental, Northwest, US Airways, Southwest, jetBlue, AirTran, Starwood, Marriott and Hilton.
Q: When it comes to air travel, where do travelers lack understanding of the industry, generally speaking? Why do you think they don’t get it?
McCartney: Let me take the second first: They don’t get it because airlines do a poor job of explaining their business. I really believe there’s a major communications gap.
And I think it starts internally: Often airline managers don’t explain policies, decisions and practices well to their own employees. And that leads to lousy service. But it amazes me that there are business travelers riding the same airline every week who themselves run very complex businesses and they don’t understand a lot about why airlines do the things they do.
I think the lack of understanding comes on two fronts: the financial and the operational. Travelers often think airlines are jacking up fares and fees and somehow taking advantage of them when the airline is losing money on the ticket. It’s not like these companies are wildly profitable. But it goes back to the disparity that travelers face: sometimes a ticket costs $200; sometimes it costs $1,200 for much the same trip.
The penalties airlines impose seem irrational to consumers: $150 to change a ticket with a few keystrokes, plus the higher fare? Inconsistency leads to misunderstanding.
On the operational side, it’s also poor communication. The classic example: weather delays. Clear skies in New York, and the flight to Florida is delayed due to weather. You call your wife in Florida and she says it’s sunny and warm. Those lying airlines! The bad weather may be in North Carolina and that’s disrupted traffic up and down the East Coast, but airlines don’t take the time to explain.
Same with canceling flights — they’re just canceling because of light bookings! Most likely there is more to it than that, but the airline doesn’t explain. Same with lost baggage: No bag, where is it? The airline can’t tell you! That just increases anxiety. When will it get to me? The airline can’t say. How frustrating for the traveler!
Q: How are the airlines like the funeral home industry?
McCartney: There’s a good joke in here somewhere!
For many years one of my standard questions for airline executives has been, Is there any other industry that makes it so difficult to use its product? It’s fun to see them ponder that, and I really believe it’s an issue that is fundamental to the problems of the airline industry.
The many rules, complexities, penalties and difficulties of buying tickets and traveling by airline can discourage people from traveling. If your customers dread it, it’s not good for business.
Only one airline executive has given me an answer: Mike Gunn, the former marketing chief at American, once suggested health care was more complex and frustrating. He had a point. Perhaps that’s not the company that any industry wants to keep, right?
When I posed the rhetorical question in the first draft of the manuscript, my editor at Harper, Ben Loehnen, had an answer of his own: funeral homes. He did it for a chuckle, and I liked the comparison. On one level, funeral homes have opaque and confusing pricing, a reputation for gouging people who need services at the last minute and plenty of complexity and different service levels. On another level, you have to die to actually become a customer. So looking at it that way, it’s clearly more difficult.
Q: Is there a right way and a wrong way for an airline to charge a la carte fees? Can you give me and example of an airline that does fees right?
McCartney: I think value for the fee charged is the key, plus full disclosure of what the fees are and what you get. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to charge extra for United’s Economy Plus seating, for example. You get extra legroom, and for some people, having that option is terrific.
On the other hand, I think it’s ridiculous for US Airways and Northwest to be trying to charge for choice seats — aisle or window seats at the front of the airplane. Worse, it’s outrageous for Spirit to be charging fees for routine services that add no value – a fee to buy a ticket online instead of at an airport, for example, or even a fee to reserve a seat.
I also think airlines needs to look closely at how high they’ve raised some fees. As I mentioned, $150 to change a domestic ticket when you also charge any fare difference seems extreme. Is it fair to charge $100 to redeem a free ticket when you have marketed and enticed your customers into believing they can redeem miles for free travel? If I carry a pet into a cabin myself I’m charged $150 on Delta. If your luggage weighs 60 pounds, it’ll cost you $250 round-trip on United but only $100 on American and Continental.
Airlines have gotten carried away with some fees, I believe, because customers have begrudgingly accepted them and paid them. But in the long run there is a cost to those companies. If consumers don’t believe the price was fair, they may go elsewhere next time.
Q: Are airlines regulated enough? Where would you like to see the tighter regulation? And where do we need the government to take a more “hands-off” approach?
McCartney: I don’t think government should try to regulate customer service beyond the traditional regulatory role in any business: discrimination, accessibility, anti-trust, etc. Let the marketplace take care of companies with poor service. But I do believe government has a role in regulating safety, and the FAA often isn’t doing enough.
The Colgan/Continental commuter crash hearings at NTSB this week are a sickening reminder. Today, for example, an FAA safety inspector testified he knew of systematic safety violations. But did he do anything? Apparently not. It appears as though that captain should have never been in that seat flying that plane. That’s a major regulatory failure, and obviously a company failure, that killed 50 people.
Q: You seem to strongly endorse participating in an airline’s frequent flier program. Is there anyone who would not be well-served by collecting frequent flier miles?
McCartney: If infrequent travelers can supplement a mileage account with a credit card and other purchases, then it’s probably worthwhile. But if you really don’t fly enough or buy enough, or prefer to take credit-card rewards in some other form like cash or points rather than miles, then the frequent flier program can work against you.
Loyalty is the question. The risk is you’ll be trying to build miles and purchase a higher-priced ticket or opt for an inconvenient itinerary just to stick with a preferred airline. If you don’t travel regularly, you’ll pay more than if you weren’t a member of a program, and so that free ticket you hope to someday score, and may never get because of capacity restrictions, may cost you quite a bit of money. For many people, mileage-based credit cards may not be the best choice as well.
Q: If you could change one thing about the airlines, what would it be? And if you could change one thing about airline passengers, what
would it be?
McCartney: Allow me to offer two for each.
On airlines, I’d simplify the business everywhere I could. A contract of carriage at many airlines is longer than an IRS Form 1040.
Secondly, I’d get airline CEOs and their boards to recognize that it’s not their financial prowess or legal intuition that matters, it’s their leadership ability. Airline CEOs are football coaches — though most don’t recognize that or aren’t comfortable with that). The successful ones are able to rally the troops and excite the customers.
Throughout my tenure covering airlines, the one constant has been that when the CEO loses labor, it’s over. The job will end. The CEOs who can effectively communicate plans, motivate the troops and get employees working together have run good airlines. The ones who lose trust, don’t inspire, can’t articulate clear goals and try to run the business as though it was a bank or telephone company always fail. It’s a different kind of business, and I think it requires different skills than just being strategically smart in the boardroom.
On passengers, I’d love to see less brow-beating by road warriors. Many of use have the mentality that the airline can do something better for me if I make a big-enough stink or yell at the airline employee until I win. And too often, it works!
It’s the obnoxious traveler who holds up the line for the rest of us, or insists on claiming that one last seat when there’s some poor kid with no status trying to get Home. Travel is tough, and travelers could do more to take care of each other.
To that end, my second simple change: Every passenger would ask first before reclining a seat back into someone’s lap. Space is tight, and too often a reclined seat makes life far worse for the passenger behind you. A reclined seat means they probably can’t open a laptop screen, for example. I think people should turn around and say something – “I’d like to recline my seat, just wanted to warn you…”
Maybe a compromise can be reached so there is still room for the laptop? Maybe the courtesy will prevent the passenger behind from kicking and kneeing the seat. Or my personal favorite, opening a newspaper so it brushes the head of the recliner.