Ten Worst Air Travel Stories of '08

Trapped on tarmac for 7 hours, 20,000 bags lost at one airport - '08 saw it all.

November 18, 2008, 12:10 PM

Dec. 17, 2008 — -- This is my favorite time of year -- when I make up my "best/worst" list -- because I give myself permission to let out all the stops and really say what's on my mind.

Normally, I'm a mild-mannered air travel analyst, but in this column, get ready for Rick Seaney, unleashed!

OK, I'm exaggerating just a bit. I'm still more Clark Kent than avenging superhero, but I have to admit I've gotten pretty indignant at times this year. Face it, has there ever been a crazier time for air travelers? This year has been one wild ride, and I'm not talking turbulence.

For more travel news and insights visit Rick's blog at: http://rickseaney.com

So, here's my list … this week, the "worst" of commercial aviation. Ready?

The Top Ten "Worst" List

1. Return to Yesteryear: A decade's worth of growth, out the window!

Blame it on the earlier fuel crisis and the current financial crunch; the bottom line is, where are all the seats? Gone, that's where. In a single year, capacity cuts removed 200,000-plus airline seats a day -- while prices soared -- so people who were only recently introduced to the glories of cheap air travel could no longer afford to fly.

Don't Forget: This "reverse growth" has already had a devastating impact on tourist-dependent economies throughout the U.S. -- and beyond.

2. Fuel Fiasco: Gone but not forgotten.

A barrel of oil zoomed to impossible heights, and airlines desperately added surcharges -- and we paid them. What choice did we have? But it didn't do much good; the airlines (with the exception of Hedge King Southwest) kept losing money like crazy. And kept many of the surcharges in place, even as the price of oil tanked.

Don't Forget: Passengers are still paying for fuel losses that the airlines racked up -- months ago!

3. Those Stinking Fees: Free checked bag? Oh, please!

When the legacy carriers began adding first and second checked bag fees, we passengers "understood." After all, oil prices were so high. Then, oil prices took a dive, but the bag fees didn't. The airlines discovered they simply brought in too much money -- hundreds of millions of dollars. This is one platinum goose they aren't ever going to kill.

Don't Forget: At least water is still free -- oh, wait, not on US Airways.

4. Trapped on the Tarmac: Wait a minute, is this still going on?!

Yes, it is. You still (sometimes) hear the cries of penned up passengers calling out for "Food! Water!! Clean restrooms!!!" Like on that Delta flight last July, when passengers were stuck on the tarmac for seven hours. Unfortunately, Congress never could get together to enact a real passengers' bill of rights. Maybe they thought the airlines would never allow this to happen again.

Don't Forget: They were wrong. It did happen again, in Ontario, Calif., just this month, as folks sat on the tarmac for nine hours.

5. Bye, Bye, Airlines: Now you see them, now you don't.

Remember Aloha, ATA, Maxjet and more? These are just a few of the airlines that went out of business this year, sometimes stranding their passengers with worthless tickets. Analysts couldn't decide if this was a healthy "survival of the fittest" process, or an ill omen of things to come.

Don't Forget: This epic "going out of business" sale may not be over yet.

6. Frequent Flier Flop: What do you mean, I can't get an upgrade?

While airlines were raising prices, some were also stealthily raising the number of miles it would take to get upgrades and trips. Some even dumped the 500-mile minimum rule.

Don't Forget: Being an "elite" frequent flier can still be worth it -- if only to avoid those loathsome bag fees.

7. Saturday Night Stay-Over Fever: As welcome as a disco resurgence.

We thought we were done with this years ago, but it's baaaack! I speak, of course, of the "stay over a Saturday night" rule, or the requirement that you stay at a destination a certain number of days to get the cheapest fares. It's just another way for the airlines to make that cash register ring a little louder.

Don't Forget: Road warriors could do the Saturday night routine, and have spouses join them with the money they save. But most, it seems, would much rather spend the weekend at home.

8. FAA Inspection Snafu: How Americans got pounded and grounded.

Talk about embarrassing. More than 2,000 American Airlines flights were cancelled over the course of a few days this spring, when the FAA came down on them, hard, for allegedly failing to comply with certain inspections. Yes, safety first, always, but still, couldn't somebody have planned this a little better?

Don't Forget: This action left tens of thousands of passengers with no place to go.

9. Heathrow's Big Bag Disaster: How to lose a lot of luggage.

British Airways was so proud of its brand new Terminal 5 at Heathrow. And then, some bags were misplaced. About 20,000 of them.

Don't Forget: At least this was one comedy that didn't occur on U.S. soil.

10. Defying Gravity: Airfare goes up. And up. And up.

There were 22 separate attempts to raise airfares this past year. The vast majority were quite successful, and that pretty much says it all.

Don't Forget: It could have been worse -- every attempt could have been successful.

OK, I'm done venting. But, did you know the airlines actually accomplished some pretty wonderful things this year? Yes, they did, and I'm going to tell you all about that … next week.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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