I travel for a living — or at least I did.
Up until the pandemic, I documented the peoples and places I visited for various outlets and on Instagram and secretly loved to fly. I adored everything about being up in the air, including things others take sport in castigating: the airlines. They wooed me with loyalty programs, pursued me with credit card deals, played to my ego with upgrades, and romanced me with tiny bottles of wine and cheese plates from Murray’s.
Sure, things went wrong from time to time, but these problems were always smoothed over by customer support who found ways to prove I was important to them.
But, as the old saying goes, you only know who your true friends are when you’re down. My once-happy love affair with the airlines is now a victim of COVID.
Like many, I was forced to stop flying for the better part of a year. And when I finally started going back to those airlines I loved so much, I discovered the skies were no longer friendly.
Over the past few months, I had to fly back and forth to Cincinnati, Ohio, to take care of elderly relatives there. My first flight was with United, which was stuffing its planes to the gills, claiming that air filters made it safe to fly if everyone wore masks. But, on both legs of that overly packed and panic-inducing journey, several people near me did not wear their masks for most of the flight once it was wheels up, and nobody was castigated for it. (Over Instagram messaging, United told me: “We notify customers in advance if their flight is expected to be at 70 percent capacity or above, allowing for changes without fees.” It then directed me to a study claiming “the risk of breathing in a COVID-19 particle on a flight is just 0.003%.”)
So, on the next flight to see my family, I chose to fly with Delta, which blocks off seats to enforce social distancing and whose crew specifically calls out sneaky anti-maskers for not covering up. These measures made me feel safe and respected by the airline.
However, in order to fly direct, I had to buy the ticket with cash — instead of with the many air miles I’ve earned over the years. And when I needed to change a flight, I was charged in miles and had to pay in cash for taxes. So much for free flight changes.
Still, this is a minor gripe. My most egregious experience so far has been with JetBlue — and I haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.
After I got vaccinated, I decided I needed to start working as a travel journalist again, beginning with a trip to the Bahamas next month. You would think that, after the strife of the past year, the airlines would welcome back travelers with open arms. But, over the last two months, JetBlue has changed the details of my upcoming flight so many times my head is spinning. Flights that were once direct are now layovers. My return to NYC was bumped back a whole day, even though other flights to the area are available.
There are supposed to be protections for airline customers like the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which states: “Bumped passengers subject to short delays can claim up to $650, while those subject to longer delays can claim up to $1,300.”
But when my travel companion called JetBlue to ask about this policy, she was told by customer service (after being kept on hold for two hours): “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.”
I didn’t realize a bill of rights was optional. Nice to know! Not until I finally complained to JetBlue and told them I was writing this story did I get a seat on another flight returning on my original day and a $100 credit in my JetBlue account.
(JetBlue did not reply to questions I e-mailed to them for this story.)
Now, let’s be clear: I get it — it’s been a rough year for all of us. Especially the airline industry, where COVID losses in that sector are estimated to be $35 billion. However, the airlines are expected to get $14 billion in relief packages on top of the $25 billion they received last year — a total of $39 billion before this summer when travel will likely skyrocket. This more than makes them whole, as opposed to the piddling COVID relief checks sent out to us individuals, who may or may not have received an extra $1,400 this month.
The airlines can no longer cry poverty or blame COVID for their problems. It’s time they get their act together and respect the customers who are coming back, trying to return to normal. We are, after all, the ones who use their services and prop up their stocks after the government no longer will.
Unfortunately, Americans don’t have a lot of options when it comes to domestic flights, but from now on, I will exercise the limited options I have to fly with airlines that respect my physical and mental health, my loyal patronage, my money and my schedule.
In the meantime, I have canceled my airline credit cards and I’m back on the market with my love and historic loyalty up for grabs. If only we had airline Tinder.
Paula Froelich is the founder and editor of the online travel magazine for women, A Broad Abroad. Instagram @pfro