Here’s a little hate mail you’ll love to read

By | February 16th, 2016

When readers send hate mail, I respond. In fact, I have a ready answer.

Technically, it’s a form letter. The key components are acknowledging readers’ anger, inferring the best motives, and letting them know that their electronic rant, no matter how offensive, is duly noted.

It goes something like this:

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my story.

I read emails like yours in the way I hope they’re intended — as a sincere and good-faith effort to improve my stories and columns.

Feedback like yours makes future stories better, and that’s especially true when you don’t like what I’ve written.

Why am I admitting all of this in a public forum? Because, just out of curiosity, I looked up the number of times I sent the letter. I would have guessed that I sent the response, which I refer to internally as “negative feedback response,” at least several times a week, if not daily.

Wrong. It might get sent once a week, but often only a few times a month.

I’ll get to the reasons in a minute. But first, let’s go through a few of the recent emails that have triggered the negative feedback response.

Here’s one from an incensed airline analyst after I covered a proposed rule for minimum seat room on planes.

While you’re waxing enthusiastic about the good old days when the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airlines, don’t forget to tell readers that flying was way more expensive, often up to six times more than today, when adjusted for inflation.

Then again, that’s often the problem with folks like you: a lot of the people who pine for the good old days just aren’t comfortable that we’ve democratized a mode of travel once available only to the well-to-do.

Well, ouch.

Actually, that’s an incredibly uninformed thing to say about yours truly. I flew before and after deregulation, and I remember that we didn’t arrive at the point where we were gasping for personal space overnight. You can run a profitable airline and treat your passengers well. Oh, and you’re talking to someone who grew up below the poverty line, so I’m very comfortable with democracy — just maybe not this reader’s attitude.

Here’s another one from a reader of my newspaper column:

I buy the paper for the travel section, to see if there’s anything of value in your articles. Your content seems to be diminishing exponentially in value over time.

Really. Hotel parking fees vs. Uber and TSA full body scanners? What’s next? Where to best find baggage carts at each airport to return in order to get quarters back?

Now there’s an idea!

Truth is, my stories are dictated by consumer problems and questions. So to this reader and any others who might be bored with my articles — stories I try hard to make interesting, even when the subject matter isn’t — I say: Send me compelling cases. Or maybe an interesting question. Then, maybe you’ll have less to complain about.

One of my favorite topics is TripAdvisor. Here’s a response to my recent critique of the mega-site:

I saw your attack story on Trip Advisor and you are all wet on your theories.

I have 1000 + reviews and have been using TA for nearly ten years. The vast majority of reviews are on the up and up. The bogus reviews are easy to spot and are too positive or too negative based upon unfounded criteria.

I’ve always enjoyed your columns, but it seems that your quality has been diluted with your addition of some marginal staffers.

I long for the good old days when I could reach you direct and not have to deal with meddling minions.

Ah, no doubt this is a reference to our moderators, who would have stopped a comment like this from being published. We don’t allow ad hominem attacks in the comments section. And if you want to get technical, I defer to the comment moderators, so strictly speaking, I’m one of their minions.

Interestingly, I backed up all of my “theories” with hard numbers and interviews and real examples of bogus reviews. I’m not sure how calling them theories makes them any less factual.

Fact is, TripAdvisor is infested with false reviews, and everyone knows it. The powers that be don’t care because people like this reader don’t care. Besides, they’re too busy counting their ill-gotten profits.

People are always assuming things about me. Here’s another one I just sent the form reply to:

I read a most ridiculous article by a USA Today author saying airlines should lower fares because fuel prices went down.

So should FedEx and UPS charge less for packages? Everything that uses fuel should go down then?

Unbelievable disconnect our society has with air travel. Shouldn’t there be “value” in getting from point A to point B safely? This is never discussed in your articles, just complaints.

Next time you write an article it should include realistic topics not just people buying cheap fares and not getting treated like first class passengers. I’m sure you drive a high-end car! Do you expect it to treat you like a lower-end car? You get what you pay for, but at least it’s getting you from point A to point B safely.

So many assumptions, all wrong. I never wrote an article in which I argued airlines should lower airfares. I did, however, write a story in which air travelers asked why fares were so high even as fuel prices were plummeting. It’s a fair question.

Why do I write about complaints? Well, because that’s what consumer advocates do.

Oh, and I drive a Honda. We’re a family of five, and have only one car. How many cars do you have?

I could go on, but as you can see, the hate messages I receive are, for the most part, misinformed diatribes, meant to provoke an angry reaction. I so enjoy sending them the negative feedback response and smothering them in politeness and love. Even if they don’t deserve it.

I had to look hard for this hate mail. (There were a few others that were unpublishable, but mostly because they weren’t written in the English language, or were “NSFW,” if you know what I’m saying.) I can only conclude that the reason for this dearth of drama is that I have the best readers. You get it. You understand why I’m here and what I’m trying to do.

  • JewelEyed

    Well, that certainly clears it up for anyone who sent a message taking issue with something published and gets that in response.

  • JewelEyed

    I got back a form letter once but was happy to find that it was a different one. Whew!

  • DChamp56

    On the “in the old days, air travel was very expensive…”, yeah, there were fewer airports, and even fewer planes that held fewer people too!
    As for fuel, UPS and FedEX didn’t charge more because of gas prices, airlines DID.

  • Ben

    “UPS and FedEX didn’t charge more because of gas prices”

    Actually, they do. Do a something search for “ups fuel surcharge” or “fedex fuel surcharge” and you can find their rates. The difference is that these companie adjust the charge regularly as fuel prices go up or down while the airlines are just enjoying the profits.

    In response to the reader’s complaint “Everything that uses fuel should go down then?”, the answer is a resounding “depends on the market forces and whether the price is driven by the supply side or demand side economics”.

  • Regina Litman

    No one answered me when I asked what “Big Five”, quotes and all, meant in the Genetically Modified whatever-the-O-stands-for column last week. I got two upvotes, so they must have wondered, too.

    But I will step in and spell out something that was put in quotes in this column that I got Chris to spell out for me a while back, in case anyone else is wondering what ut stands for:

    NSFW = Not Suitable For Work

    Just abbreviating it in the above line caused me to cringe because these types of things are not in my personal style manual.

  • JewelEyed

    It can also mean Not Safe For Work.

  • Alan Gore

    To the airline flack who came up with “While you’re waxing enthusiastic about the good old days when the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airlines, don’t forget to tell readers that flying was way more expensive” let me set him straight.

    The CAB regulated ROUTES and FARES, which is why it made travel more expensive. In those days, airlines gamed the system to keep the number of competitors down and the fares high.

    When this ‘analyst’ claims that minimum seat width standards would be the same as a return to the CAB, he’s lying and he knows it. Pick any time when the seats were as wide as any given proposed standard, and tell us how “high” they were compared to today.

  • KanExplore

    I do appreciate it that commenters are required to refrain from calling each other names and descending into those all too dull spats that many comment sections online are now dominated by. I’ll probably disagree fairly often, but also give credit when I feel credit is due.

    Actually I do think airlines should lower airfares, or at least that they would lower them more than they already have if not for the decline in competition. I suspect DOJ would never have given the green light for the American /US Airways merger if it had known plummeting fuel prices would change the economics of running an airline so dramatically.

  • Rebecca

    You should see the emails the doctor that runs quackwatch gets. They do make for some interesting reading:

    He also has been sued.

  • mdy2k1

    Chris Elliott writes: Send me compelling cases. Or maybe an interesting question.

    Since we are in Meta-Elliott territory, here’s my idea.
    Whenever somebody writes for help, there’s always several commentators who shout “Get Travel Insurance!!”
    Whenever somebody writes for help about their travel insurance, there’s always several commentators who shout “YOU SHOULD HAVE READ YOUR POLICY!!!”
    Whenever somebody writes for help about an ambiguously worded travel insurance policy, there’s always several commentators who shout “YOU SHOULD HAVE A TALMUDIC SCHOLAR READ YOUR POLICY!!!”

    The drawback with travel insurance is you never know with 100% confidence what’s really covered. This ambiguousness turns people off from buying insurance.

    You have an travel insurance underwriter in Allianz.

    What I’d like to propose, with a few requesters per year is to take their situation and see how it would work under the various Allianz policies. For example the group that had to book new flights to get to their Alaska Tour from last week. Would the annual travel or Domestic Travel Plan insurance package have covered their expenses? Why or why not?

  • Patrica

    Oh my goodness Chris! I don’t really care what kind of car you ALL drive just as long as we have you and volunteers who care to research/edit/keep the screen clean of dirty fighting. There will always be nay-sayers. And then there’s the rest of us…watchful and also grateful. for the work advocates do.

  • Don Spilky

    LOVE this thought.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Thanks, md. Intriguing idea. I’ve copied it to Chris to make sure he sees it. And may I suggest that, in future, you submit ideas like this directly to him, too. He loves this kind of thing, and I’d hate to see him miss it. Here’s his address for next time: :-)

  • Tammi Tanaka

    “meddling minions”… ?… Oh, Grant Ritchie, say it ain’t so! So many times, it’s additional statements from a moderator that helps clarify an issue.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha… Chris is the meddler-in-Chief! He NEEDS a minion or two to keep him in line. :-)

  • Blamona

    I love your “form” letter response, I might have to use similar attitude with haters!