What?! No Christmas gifts from my airline?

It’s the day after Christmas and as I surveyed the splay of Christmas wrapping, boxes, ribbons, bows, unwrapped socks and shirts, puzzles and gifted bottles of wine under the tree, I knew I had a lot for which to be thankful. But, there were no gifts from airlines this Christmas; I would have appreciated one or two.

My Christmas wish list has been growing over the year. I thought that if I asked the Santa Baby for a few improvements, I might get a token gift or two. But, this holiday season, gift giving has been strictly one way when it comes to my major travel partner. Here is a handful of presents that I was hoping to find under my travel tree.

A share of the plummeting prices of jet fuel.
As every person in America knows, the price of oil is dropping like a rock. We see it every day, every time we drive past the corner gas station, every time we fill up our car. But we don’t see it when it comes to airfares. After hearing the airlines howl that they needed to raise airfares in response to higher fuel costs, we reluctantly believed them. Now, when it is clear that airlines are no longer suffering from exorbitant jet-fuel costs, the airlines have been more than reluctant to lower their airfares.

However, American Airlines, the airline benefiting most from the drop in oil prices, is talking about sharing some of the windfall profits with flight attendants, pilots and other labor unions that have seen years of stagnant wages and benefits.

A few extra inches of leg-room in coach.
After a year of discovering that personal space in airlines has been reduced bit by bit, travelers are reaching the point of “enough is enough.” Perhaps, during a sugarplum dream, I fantasized about an extra two inches. Is that too much to ask for in a dream? Unfortunately, airline reality reared its ugly head in the form of a special gift from Delta — a new coach class divided into three sub-classes. Wonderful! As far as I can discern, coach passengers are getting squeezed again and being offered even fewer amenities such as seat choice and simple human space.

Holiday frequent flier miles.
Passengers will not find frequent-flier-mile presents under the frequent-flier tree, unless they are big spenders; very big spenders. For the other 99 percent, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines doled out lumps of frequent-flier coal by shifting from a program that rewards miles flown to a program that rewards dollars spent. Reaching elite levels will be far more difficult in the coming year.

Airfares that include extra fees.
Heaven forbid the airlines tell passengers clearly how much their airline transportation will cost! Since 2008, airlines have “unbundled” airfares by removing what used to be part of the advertised cost of flying — checked baggage, seat reservations, speaking with an agent on the phone or at the airport, pillows and blankets, etc. Today, airlines only disclose the airfare without any of the ancillary fees at the time of purchase should travelers have the temerity to purchase airline travel through a travel agent where they may be able to compare prices. The airlines like it that way — a confused and ignorant customer is their best customer.

The battle about disclosure of extra fees is getting ready to rev into high gear as the Republican-controlled Senate examines the Orwellian-named Transparent Airfares Act, passed by the House, that seeks to overturn decades of consumer protections. So far, after almost six months, no Senators — either Republican or Democrat — have moved to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. Every member of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee has been visited by Travelers United representatives. Senate members seem to recognize that this is a bad bill with consequences that would affect consumer protections in many other sectors of the economy.

The Christmas coal being delivered by the airlines is a full frontal assault on consumer protections, funded with hundreds of millions from plummeting fuel prices. It will be a battle.

More competition that might lower prices. Forget it.
The airlines have us right where they want us. They have managed to consolidate the airline power into four major airlines — American, Delta, Southwest and United. The power of competition only exists on a handful of big-city routes where airfares are still low. The rest of the nation has been carved into duopolies where airlines avoid competing with each other rather than cut-throat competition. For Christmas the airline gift is more “capacity discipline,” a form of collusion that seems to be overlooked by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Internationally, the airlines are openly fighting a protectionist battle to deny the expansion plans of low-cost Norwegian Air International, that is flying transatlantic routes for airfares in the range of $350-$550. Legacy carriers — American, Delta and United — are also openly battling competition from upscale middle-eastern carriers — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar.

Less competition, not more, is the airlines’ gift to us in the coming year if they have their way with regulators.