With the close of 2009 upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at one of the most tumultuous decades in our nation's history. It was a time marked by unthinkable tragedy, but also by perseverance, strength, and miraculous luck.
In chronological order, here are the top 10 travel events of the last decade.
JetBlue Takes Off
When JetBlue took its maiden flight in February of 2000, it ushered in a new style of flying: Low fares, comfortable seats, minimal in-flight food service, and awesome perks such as live satellite TV. This combination was a game-changer, tweaking the low-cost carrier model enough to distinguish it from bare-bones airlines and bloated legacy carriers alike. As its reach and popularity grew, it was one of the few airlines to remain profitable through the post-9/11 recession, and, despite some financial difficulties along the way, continues to grow to this day.
There is little to say about 9/11 that hasn't already been said. It is the defining moment not only of this decade, but likely of our century as well. 9/11 ushered in a new era of fear and uncertainty, of tightened security and calls for war. For travelers, 9/11 simply changed everything. Airlines and airports reeled from the attack, and travelers, understandably, thought twice about boarding a plane. 9/11 led to the founding of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, and we all felt the pinch of stricter security rules and procedures. And always, in the back of minds, was the question: Could it happen again?
And yet, we flew, and continue to fly. 9/11 may have shattered our country's sense of invincibility, but it did little to diminish our love for travel.
The Shoe Bomber
In December 2001, Richard Reid boarded an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with the intent to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes. He was caught trying to light the fuse midflight. Passengers are now required to remove their shoes so they can be X-rayed for explosives, leaving travelers shuffling though security barefoot or in socks.
The Liquid Bomb Plot
In 2006, U.K. police disrupted a plot to detonate liquid explosives on 10 planes flying between the U.K. and the U.S. and Canada. As a result of the plot, liquids were briefly banned from carry-on bags. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Homeland Security instituted the 3-1-1 rule, which allows passengers to carry on as many three-ounce containers of liquid as they can fit in a quart-size zip-top bag. The 3-1-1 rule, as it's known, has become a fixture of our packing routine ever since.
Delta Merges With Northwest, Creating World's Largest Airline
When TWA was acquired by American in 2001, American assumed the title of world's largest airline ... until this merger took place. Delta announced its merger with Northwest in April 2008, and at this point, all that's left of Northwest is 100 or so aircraft waiting for a new paint job. In the meantime, the merged carrier consolidated gates and hubs, absorbed Northwest frequent flyers into Delta's SkyMiles program, and configured a route map that spans the globe. The last vestiges of Northwest are expected to be gone by early next year.
American Debuts the First-Checked-Bag Fee
Airlines had added second-checked-bag fees throughout early 2008 as a way of offsetting rising fuel costs, but no one thought they would dare start charging for all bags. Then, on May 21, American did just that, announcing it would add a $15 first-checked-bag fee. What followed is now well-known history: Other carriers scrambled to match American's fee, and as fuel prices continued to soar to astronomical heights, baggage fees became status quo, and other fees were added or increased. In the end, American's fee had a profound effect not only on the price of flying, but on the way people shopped and compared airfares.
Swine Flu Wreaks Havoc
Like SARS before it, the H1N1 outbreak sent shockwaves through the travel industry, grounding flights and all but choking off travel to Mexico. Travelers didn't know whether or not they should travel, or what would happen to their itineraries if they cancelled, and the airlines were equally at a loss for effective ways of dealing with the pandemic. In the end, the H1N1 scare cost the industry untold billions, with airlines and affected tourist destinations bearing the brunt of the damage.
U.S. Requires Passports for Travel to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean
After flip-flopping for years, the government finally implemented the last pieces of its new passport rules this June. All travelers between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean must now present a valid passport or advanced-security driver's license, which are only available in a handful of states that border Canada. So long to the old days, when all it took was a birth certificate or regular driver's license.
DOT Issues Three-Hour Tarmac Delay Restriction
While the effects of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) new tarmac delay rules won't be realized until 2010, the restrictions represent years of negotiations, research, and, of course, tarmac delays. The last straw seems to have been the overnight delay of an ExpressJet flight in Rochester, Minnesota, this past summer. The new regulations, which limit tarmac wait times to three hours and require airlines to provide food and snacks after two, are aimed at preventing such an incident from happening again. This could be the first step toward a slew of customer-rights rules and laws, or it could be a logistical nightmare that causes more harm than good. What we do know is that the DOT is taking up the fight on our behalf—and 2010 should be pretty interesting.
The Christmas Day Terrorist Attack
A decade that began with the worst ever attack on U.S. soil ended with a close call. On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate an explosive hidden in his underwear as his aircraft was descending into Detroit. Only luck (his explosive didn't explode) and quick-thinking by courageous civilians spared us the kind of disaster we all know too well. Details about Abdulmutallab prompted questions about a flawed, or at least malfunctioning, security system. His father warned the U.S. embassy about his son's radical views, so why wasn't Abdulmutallab placed on a no-fly list? And how did Abdulmutallab make it through security with explosives carried on his person? And so we close the decade on somewhat unsteady footing, wondering exactly how safe we are, and, more troubling, whether or not we can ever truly feel secure in the air.
Other Trends, Events, and Developments From the Past Decade
"Miracle on the Hudson": It was a perfect confluence of luck, skill, and clear weather, and it came at a time when the country needed a pick-me-up. On a cold January afternoon, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles, and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 completed a near-perfect ditching and evacuation of their Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after the aircraft's engine was struck by birds. The symbolism of the incident was powerful and impossible to ignore: We watched as every single passenger was pulled from the floating plane, most of them uninjured, with Manhattan as the backdrop. For a country overcome by economic hardship, this was the feel-good story we needed.
Lots of Miles, but Nowhere to Go: Ten years ago, members of mileage programs could earn miles for purchases at a handful of retailers affiliated with one or more programs. Today, the major programs feature mileage malls—extensive networks of online retailers that award miles for purchases. The malls linked to the programs of American, Delta, and United, for example, all feature hundreds of participating merchants.
This would be great. But as access to miles expanded, it became increasingly difficult (and expensive) to redeem them for travel. That's a bad value proposition for frequent flyers, and a pressing issue for travelers and carriers as we head into the next decade.
Tripadvisor and the Rise of User Reviews: Back in 2000, a little site (and our sister site) called TripAdvisor launched. Nearly ten years later, user reviews for hotels, restaurants, attractions, and nearly every travel-related service are ubiquitous, and TripAdvisor has grown to encompass over 30 million reviews and opinions. Who among us would consider planning a trip without consulting user reviews, whether on TripAdvisor, Yelp, or a booking site? Anyone? I didn't think so.
Metasearch: What TripAdvisor did for planning travel, metasearch did for purchasing airfare. The rise of metasearch has given travelers the ability to compare prices side by side, eliminating the hassle of searching individual airlines and online travel agents separately. Metasearch saves time and introduced a new level of pricing transparency to the industry, and has revolutionized the way people shop for airfare.
Did we miss anything? Share your picks for the top travel events of the past decade in the comments section below. Or feel free to weigh in on our choices above. Thanks, and have a safe and happy new year! (Safe travels, too!)