Looking for a way to end 2016 on a hopeful note? So was I when I went back through the columns I had written this year about the consumer issues that confused or annoyed me most.
What I found was a pleasant surprise: In several cases, things had actually gotten at least a little better in the months since I’d visited the topic.
So let us return to airline baggage fees, the general unpleasantness of the rental car industry, banks that use scare tactics to try to keep you from using new apps, and price transparency in college shopping.
Glimmers of optimism are appropriate in each case, but so is vigilance. Our need to call companies out when they’re not meeting our needs continues unabated.
LUGGAGE FEE REFUNDS When you pay to check your bags and they don’t arrive until a day after you do, you ought to get your money back. Seems logical, and airlines don’t always disagree, as I wrote in April. But the process is deliberately tedious — and it can end with vouchers for future travel instead of refunds to your credit card.
In a rare bit of bipartisan legislative action, Congress delivered in July the reauthorization act for the Federal Aviation Administration. It promises that by July 2017, all air carriers must “promptly” provide an “automated refund” of checked baggage fees if they fail “to deliver” a bag 12 hours after the arrival of a domestic flight or 15 hours after an international one.
There will still need to be a round of Department of Transportation rule-making on the specifics, which worries me some. Kathy Allen, a spokeswoman for the trade group Airlines for America, didn’t want to say much beyond pointing me to a statement about the dangers of regulation. She added, via email, that she didn’t think “there’s any way to speculate at this point about the future administration.”
So I took my skeptical questions — How “automated” is automated? Can a voucher count as a refund? How exactly are we to define “deliver”? — to Charles Leocha, the founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.
Mr. Leocha believes that every airline will have to offer a refund to your credit card but may be able to extend a voucher as an option, too. So be ready to ask for your “automatic” refund and check a box for a true refund to your credit or debit card. Airlines prefer vouchers because of the “breakage” — the fancy industry term for people forgetting all about them.
Normally when bags are many hours late, the airline hires a company to deliver them to you. So here’s a cynical question to ponder: Will the airlines start the clock for refund purposes when you land and then stop it when your bags merely arrive at the airport, long after you’ve given up and left? Or will they do the right thing and not stop the clock until the delivery company shows up with your bag, many hours after the bag may have arrived at the airport? Mr. Leocha would not rule out the possibility that the airlines might try to default to the first scenario, noting that there’s usually some kind of battle during the rule-making process.
NEW BLOOD AT HERTZ This month, I channeled years of frustration and bile into a column about the rental-car industry. By my analysis, the leading companies seemed to have set a team of user-experience geeks loose with the goal of making car rentals so painful that every last one of us would flee to Lyft or Uber.
A few days later, Hertz announced that its chief executive was retiring as of Jan. 3 and that his replacement, Kathryn V. Marinello, would come from outside the company. Even better: She has deep experience in the payments industry from her time at General Electric and First Data.
Hertz has an obnoxious practice of charging customers for toll transponders, even on days when the vehicles don’t pass through tolls. This isn’t necessary. Competitors like Enterprise don’t charge on days when the gear is idle, while Silvercar doesn’t charge at all for the transponder.
Will Ms. Marinello rid us of this scourge? A Hertz spokeswoman, Karen Drake, did not reply to my request to have a chat with the new boss.
MY PAL JAMIE DIMON Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase chief executive, used his annual shareholders letter in April to try to scare consumers who use some third-party apps and services that help manage and move money. In a May column with the headline “Jamie Dimon Wants to Protect You From Innovative Start-Ups,” I tried to take the measure of his security concerns, which seemed to have been directed at companies like Yodlee, Mint, Acorns and Penny.
Later that month, when Recode’s Kara Swisher asked him about the headline, which she described as “not a very nice” one, he dismissed it with an unprintable phrase. Time will tell if he intends to erect barriers that will keep new companies from helping his customers improve their financial lives in ways the bank hasn’t thought of yet. I hope he doesn’t.
Since then, there have been no big breaches that we know of at start-ups and services like these. Last month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a welcome, industrywide call for comments on third-party data access and possible additional safeguards. We’ll see if the bureau can issue recommendations before our elected officials begin their promised defanging of the agency.
I do want to thank Mr. Dimon on behalf of credit-card reward junkies everywhere for giving us the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card in 2016. By next month, I’ll have extracted over $2,100 in value in exchange for my $450 annual fee. At that point, we’ll put my card aside, my wife will get her own, and we’ll do the same thing all over again.
All those perks for customers will reduce the bank’s profit by $200 million to $300 million in the fourth quarter, Mr. Dimon told investors this month, according to a Bloomberg report. But the investment could pay off handsomely if people stick with the card for a long time and carry balances that are multiples of the rewards they extract.
COLLEGE COST TRANSPARENCY In 2016, schools like the California Institute of Technology, Harvard and Princeton continued to block College Abacus, a nifty tool for families to estimate the true cost of attendance at a college or university and to compare it with other institutions. The tool can’t compare costs if it can’t access the universities’ calculators, so the schools erect barricades that block it.
As I wrote in a January column, the schools’ representatives either blew me off when I asked them why they were doing this or offered explanations that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. So let me explain what I think is actually going on here.
Most colleges are already in a quiet price war, haggling on financial aid offers in April or throwing discounts at families earlier in the season and calling it merit aid or some other euphemistic term. Any tool like the one at College Abacus, which bluntly pits schools against one another, reinforces the idea that cost ought to be a big factor in any family’s decision making.
Once you put down the pictures of leafy campuses and start in on the spreadsheet, however, you discover that there isn’t much data that can help you figure out whether the school with the $65,000 annual bill for tuition, room and board is better than the school that offers $45,000 (including a $20,000 discount). Or whether the $25,000 flagship state university would be just fine (or worse than two years of community college first).
So a tip of the cap to unafraid administrators at Drew University, which unblocked College Abacus’s search software this year. Here’s hoping that more schools will do the same in 2017, a year in which I intend to ask plenty more questions about how and what to pay for college.
The New York Times