To say there's room for improvement in the airline industry is a clear understatement. Between baggage fees, customer-service fails and hellish flight delays, most carriers consistently keep our expectations at tarmac level. It's about time for the airlines to do a better job, and we know just where they should start. Across the board, all airlines should make an effort to execute the following ten ideas.
Sell a la carte tickets
Amtrak does it. A few airlines, like JetBlue, AirTran, and Southwest, do it too. They have an a la carte pricing scheme. They sell one-way fares that cost the same amount per mile as round-trip tickets. Still, the major legacy carriers continue to sell us one-way or open-jaw tickets at exorbitant, cringe-worthy prices. The reason they pummel us like this is because business travelers often buy one-way tickets and their companies will eat the costs. Therein, the legacy airlines force all one-way travelers, whether flying for business or pleasure, to try tricky schemes like buying throwaway or hidden-city tickets in order to find affordable fares. Let's stop playing these silly pricing games, airlines. Give us fair fares.
Offer electronic boarding passes
Some airlines have check-in systems that allow passengers to use electronic boarding passes stored on their mobile devices at select airports. This is a small effort, but it makes a big difference. It's often difficult for travelers to find a printer, and there's not always time to wait in line at the check-in desk at the airport. Most major carriers now offer the option to download a mobile plane ticket, but some are still shackled to paper: Spirit and AirTran come to mind. Southwest is working on it and says it will offer mobile boarding passes by next year.
Arrive on time
Airlines: You have one job. Get us to our destinations on time. Some carriers do this a lot better than others, and we're going to name names. A recent Air Travel Consumer Report from the Department of Transportation (DOT) showed that only about three-fourths of Southwest flights arrived on time in September 2013. In other words, if you were flying on Southwest this past September, there was a one-in-four chance that your flight would be delayed. Not cool, Southwest. According to Skift, Southwest says its poor performance was the result of "unexpected summer weather" and that the airline is "working on schedule tweaks that will improve our performance in the next few months."
Let us surf the Web for free
Take away the dirty seatback screens and give us a fast, decent Internet connection. I would much rather stream Netflix, take care of some emails, and beef up my Pinterest boards than watch lousy in-flight movies or old Two and a Half Men episodes. So far, JetBlue is the only airline to provide an in-flight Internet connection that rivals at-home speeds. For now, the ViaSat-powered Wi-Fi is free (hurray!), but it's only available on a few of the aircraft in JetBlue's fleet. Some other airlines use expensive, slow systems like GoGo, but, overall, in-flight connectivity is still few and far between in the industry.
Refund fees when our bags are delayed
This is the ultimate slap in the traveler's face: The airline makes you pay, oh, $25 for a checked bag. Then the carrier loses your suitcase for a few days and practically ruins your trip. You eventually get your bag back, but you're still out 25 bucks. It's rubbish. Airlines must refund bag fees if they permanently lose your luggage, but carriers aren't required to give back the fees if you get your stuff back … eventually. And most won't. This isn't fair, and it needs to change.
Have a sense of humor
I was waiting to board a JetBlue flight when the gate agent called "all New York Giants fans" to board before the economy crowd. There was a quiet pause as we processed the instruction. Then we realized it was a joke and a smattering of laughter broke out. In that momentary silence, I sensed the brief uncertainty caused by a divergence from the somber air-travel routine. We're not used to color and comedy in the airport or on the plane. But it makes the experience worlds better. Humor helps us to relax, to treat others better, and to see the silliness in stressful situations. The airlines would do well to hire more gate agents, attendants, and customer-service reps with wit and vivacity.
Participate in PreCheck
In order to be eligible for PreCheck security screenings, a traveler must be flying with an airline that has agreed to partner with the TSA. But not all airlines participate in the TSA's expedited-security program. As it stands, nine U.S. carriers are part of PreCheck; this limits the reach of the program. Even if you pay the $85 application fee and are approved to join PreCheck, you won't receive expedited screening when flying with, say, Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier, or AirTran. For those travelers who regularly fly these airlines or smaller regional carriers, PreCheck is a bust. It's a complex issue, but our desire is a simple one: We want a faster, more streamlined security process, no matter with whom we're flying.
Show us all available seats on the seat map
We're not stupid. We know, when it's time to choose our seats, that the airline website isn't being totally honest. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, we're right: "Airlines routinely block coach seats for a variety of reasons, reducing the pool of available seats to reserve free of charge in advance when you book a trip. On many flights now, 30 percent to 40 percent of coach seats are held back by the airline for premium customers [or] people with special needs or [are] available only for a fee." That's pretty slimy. But there's a workaround. Most airlines release these hidden seats the day before departure. Check in for your flight 24 hours in advance, peek at the seat map again, and you might come across a better selection of fee-free seats that are not middle spots in the back of the plane. Or the airlines could show us accurate seat maps. Just a thought.
Allow gate-to-gate device usage
While we're happy that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally came to its senses and cleared gate-to-gate device usage on flights, we're impatiently waiting for all carriers to get on board. For now, only select airlines allow flyers to use mobile devices during takeoff and landing. (Before an airline can change its device rules, it must show the FAA that its fleet can withstand radio interference.) Once you've been on a flight during which passengers were permitted to listen to music or play games during takeoff, it seems absurd and regressive to be told to stow mobile devices when you fly on an airline that hasn't verified its fleet with the FAA.
Respond to our complaints
It's not easy to get an airline to respond to a complaint. It's even harder if you don't declare your concerns before a community of online followers. It often seems as if airlines will only respond when high-profile passengers get vocal in front of a significant audience, via Twitter complaints or Facebook callouts. Passenger complaints in the form of emails or phone calls can feel futile. In September, a British Airways flyer spent $1,000 advertising his complaint on Twitter when the airline lost his luggage. The man got an apology and his bag back. But really, passengers shouldn't have to use social media advertisements to get an airline's attention. Your Klout score should not make you more worthy of a customer-service rep's time than the passenger who is not an online "influencer." Hey airlines: If you worked on your basic communication skills and answered our emails, we wouldn't have to expose your faults on the Internet.