If you sit in the back of the plane, your trip will get worse—unless you pay for better. If you sit up front, your trip will get better. Wherever you sit, you'll pay a bit more, on average. And as in the past, the best way to buy air tickets is during a fare "sale." In a nutshell, that's my scenario for airline travel in the new year.
For domestic travel, airlines will focus on in-flight entertainment and connectivity as the only way they're willing to "improve" their product. Onboard WiFi, bigger screens, and such: The gizmos will be bigger and better on new planes, and on any major retrofits. Of course, you'll pay—at least for the WiFi and maybe for other features.
The rest of the coach/economy experience will get worse. A bellwether in the industry—Southwest—announced it would add seats to its current fleet, decreasing legroom by at least an inch, and new planes will be pre-configured to crunch your knees and make it hard for you to use your laptop. The net result: JetBlue will be the only domestic line with even close to adequate legroom.
Boeing's first 777s generally came with nine seats per row, which are generally the widest economy seats in the air. Sadly, big airlines, including American and several overseas lines, are starting to get new 777s with a tight 10 seats per row, and other lines are reconfiguring current fleets to that unfortunate standard. Similarly, Boeing's new 787s were designed to be quite comfortable at eight seats per row, but at least half of the buyers—including lead domestic customer United—are installing narrow 737-width seats at nine per row.
If you want reasonable legroom, you can pay for it. Delta, Frontier and United have already added legroom-for-pay seats at the front of their economy cabins, and American has announced it will do the same. For 2013, it seems to me that Alaska, Hawaiian, Southwest and US Airways have to be looking seriously at following suit. I suspect that even low-end Allegiant and Spirit could make a business case. Overseas lines, on the other hand, have generally opted for true premium economy: separate cabins with lots of legroom and wider seats. The problem is that those fares tend to be at least double regular economy fares and therefore a poor value proposition for most vacation travelers.
Airlines will continue to focus on product improvement—but in business class. Flat-bed seats are becoming the norm, and airlines that haven't installed them yet will be forced to play catch-up to remain competitive.
I also look for some pressure on frequent flyer programs to reduce mileage earning on the lowest fares. Basically, the mileage-to-award-travel aspects of frequent flyer programs have morphed from loyalty rewards to cash cows. The primary loyalty benefit is now elite status, with its "free" upgrades and extra perks. And for rewarding loyalty, airlines would rather base reward levels on how much you spend rather than on how many miles you log. They take several approaches:
- Do as airlines with newer programs, including Southwest and Virgin America, do: Base award levels on how much you spend, not miles.
- Cut the mileage awarded for flying on the lowest fare: Delta started it; you'll probably see more of the same.
- Retain full travel credit on the current miles-flown basis on all tickets, but cut the number of "elite qualifying" miles on cheap tickets.
I see no improvement in availability of award seats at the lowest mileage levels—the ones the airlines feature when they're touting their "generous" programs. Business/first-class seats will remain even scarcer. Realistically, seats to popular destinations will still be tough to score, and reasonable connecting itineraries will remain next to impossible.
All in all, then, except in the front of the plane, air travel will not be any better in 2013. You'll be lucky if it doesn't get a lot worse.
Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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