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2015 air travel forecast: From bad to worse

USA Today  2015-01-07 13:04:46

Bill McGee, Special for USA TODAY 8:04 a.m. EST January 7, 2015Travelers wait for their luggage after arriving at Washington Reagan National Airport on Nov. 26, 2014.(Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)13 CONNECT 3 LINKEDIN EMAILMOREThis was a tough year for many air travelers.Globally, passengers were rocked by a series of tragedies that began and ended with missing Malaysia-based airliners and was punctuated by the downing of a commercial aircraft over a war zone.Domestically, 2014 was a year when tempers flared in airline cabins, as social media provided explicit details on every brouhaha over crying babies, overhead bins and Knee Defenders. In short, for the overwhelming number of passengers unable to afford business or first class, flying was not very pleasant this year.It would be nice to predict that 2015 will be better. But an analysis of industry trend lines unfortunately suggests the opposite. Here are five key stressors that -- sorry to say -- have not yet reached their stress points.? Seating will continue getting tighter. A few months ago I detailed here how airline seats have gotten narrower and legroom has decreased through the years. I followed up by noting that Amtrak's economy service provides a more comfortable ride than most airline economy products. The trend lines here are irrefutable, as evidenced by JetBlue's announcement in November that it will launch an Airbus A320 "Cabin Refresh" that includes increasing the number of seats. As for the lighter and thinner "slim-line" seats airlines are eagerly installing, a survey released by TripAdvisor in July revealed 65% of passengers found the new seats "less comfortable." This is good news only for airline executives, Wall Street analysts and those who sell the Knee Defender.USA TODAYReclining seats: A guide to airline etiquetteUSA TODAYThink airline seats have gotten smaller? They have? Airplanes will become even more crowded. The cabins of U.S. airlines just continue getting fuller and fuller. I've been writing about this issue for years, and quite frankly I've given up on predicting when airline load factors will level off, because against all odds new records continue to be set. The latest government statistics indicate the average domestic load factor for airlines so far this year has been 84.4%, the highest since 1945, when airlines were troop carriers during World War II. Consider that average loads remained in the 50% and 60% ranges until the 1990s, and they've been soaring ever since. As I detailed here last year, high loads exacerbate all sorts of headaches, from boarding delays to overhead bin shortages, from uncomfortable middle seats to involuntary bumping. But don't look for any relief soon?the airline industry is proud of its "discipline" in cramming more and more of us into those tubes. And analysts love it, since "increase in load factor is always positive."USA TODAYGive us bigger seats! Fatter profits might follow? More "economy-minus" service will be introduced. It wasn't that long ago when larger U.S. carriers laughed at Spirit Airlines; now they're emulating the "ultra" low-cost carrier model. Delta's recent announcement that it is "redefining" its cabin indicates a downgrade rather than an upgrade in service. The introduction of "Basic Economy" means passengers paying the lowest fare will be charged extra for the usual amenities, such as checked baggage, but also will be unable to select a seat in advance and won't be allowed ANY changes or refunds whatsoever. JetBlue recently announced an overhaul as well, describing it as an effort to "drive shareholder returns through differentiated product and service." Translation: an airline that had developed a loyal following due to its superior service, comfortable seats and free first checked bag policy has decided to please Wall Street investors rather than, you know, those who fly on JetBlue's airplanes. The new changes mean?you guessed it?no free checked bags for those on the bottom end of the "fare bundle options." And, as noted above, there will be more seats wedged into the cabins. There's little doubt other U.S. airlines are drawing up their own stripped-down service options as well.? Further effects of consolidation will be felt. Last year I testified in Congress on behalf of consumers and urged the federal government not to approve the American Airlines-US Airways merger. Unfortunately, consumer advocates haven't been very successful in such endeavors lately, as yet another acquisition was rubber-stamped by the feds?just as they had approved United-Continental, Delta-Northwest, Southwest-AirTran, Frontier-Midwest, US Airways-America West, American-TWA and others in recent years. We warned that all these mergers would do what consolidation in every other industry has always done: reduce competition, diminish service, eliminate choice and ultimately raise prices. Because the airline industry is enjoying unprecedented access in Washington, it would be naďve to assume that consolidation has run its course, even as flights are reduced on key routes and former hubs close. There are still a handful of competitors on the domestic scene, and the oligopoly of the Big Three?American, Delta and United?has already tasted the effects of eliminating competition.? Fees will increase, proliferate and confound. Several analysts, journalists and pundits have been predicting what airfares may do in 2015, and there are no surprises?some say fares will go up, others say they'll go down, still others say they'll be flat. What's not up for robust debate is the revenue the airlines generate through "ancillary revenue" fees. According to a leading consulting firm, such fees have soared to unprecedented heights since 2007, growing "to a flood" and increasing by 1,200% over six years. Last year, the most ancillary cash in the global airline industry was collected by?surprise!?the Big Three here in America. United notched $5.7 billion, followed by Delta at $2.5 billion and American at $2.1 billion. Pundits may argue over whether "base airfares" are rising or falling, but the bottom line for consumers is the total cost of flying will keep inching up, as more fees are introduced (see above) and existing fees increase for everything from "preferred seating" to cashing in frequent flier mileage. I've noted this before. But what's worse is the airline industry's increasing influence in Washington could soon make deciphering all these fees harder than ever if the "Transparent Airfares Act" ?which actually makes it harder rather than easier to calculate all airline taxes, fees and surcharges?is passed in 2015.Of course, there are other important trend lines taking hold for airline passengers, and I've written about many of these safety, security and service issues. But we're interested in hearing from you. What do you foresee for airline travel in the coming year? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.In the meantime, safe travels in 2015, whichever form of transport you choose.Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at travel@usatoday.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.13 CONNECT 3 LINKEDIN EMAILMORERead or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1IpRkGD

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