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Five Big Changes Coming to Air Travel in 2009

Big changes in the world of air travel are coming in 2009. From merger mania to airport security adjustments, here’s what’s on our shortlist of important changes in the year ahead.

Merger Mania

Late in October, [[ Delta | Delta ]]’s proposed merger with Northwest was approved by the Department of Justice, and the airlines will enter full-blown merger mode in early 2009. The tie-up may not be fully complete until 2010, but you can expect Northwest’s name and brand to be phased out in 2009. The SkyMiles and WorldPerks frequent flyer programs will be merged towards the end of this year. For up-to-date information, visit Delta’s FAQ page.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Delta/Northwest merger will spark other mergers. As a recent Reuters report predicted, “The answer is likely to be yes in an industry that clearly has excess capacity, is adding surcharges despite a retreat in fuel prices, and is facing international competitors that are expected to consolidate in the coming year.”

Airlines Introduce A-La-Carte Pricing

Despite protests from travelers, [[ American | American ]] and [[ Frontier |Frontier ]] are set to introduce a-la-carte pricing in 2009. As of the time of this writing, American had not announced full details of its new fare structure, although it may use [[ Air Canada ]] as a model. Stay tuned to our Today in Travel blog for details on American’s new system later this year.

In December, Frontier announced details of its new AirFairs fare structure. Economy fares are bare-bones, no-frills tickets; Classic fares include seat assignments, checked bags, DirecTV, and frequent flyer miles; and Classic Plus tickets are fully refundable and changeable with lots of extras.

If these new ventures from Frontier and American prove successful, other airlines may adopt similar fare structures, similar to the avalanche of new fees introduced in 2008. Whether that will be a good thing for travelers remains to be seen.

Airport Security Update

Travelers, say good-bye to your plastic baggies and tiny bottles of shampoo. The 3-1-1 rule may be discontinued in 2009 as new X-ray technology is introduced at airports around the country. The new technology can detect differences between benign liquids such as hair gel or juice boxes and potentially dangerous liquids used in bombs.

The TSA expects to have as many as 900 machines in place by the end of the year, so the 3-1-1 rule will be phased out and eventually halted altogether in the near future.

In-Flight Internet Service Expands

Expect Internet access to be available on many more flights in 2009. American, Delta, and Virgin America all introduced Internet service on some flights in 2008, and will likely expand the service to more planes this year. Delta plans to add service to a new plane every few days, with the goal of outfitting all its aircraft with Internet by the end of the year, and will also begin to add the service to Northwest’s planes.

Other airlines, including [[ Air Canada | Air Canada ]], [[ Alaska Airlines | Alaska ]], and [[ Southwest | Southwest ]] plan to test Internet service this year as well.

Paperless Boarding Passes

Paperless boarding passes are the wave of the future, and will become more widespread this year. You’ll soon be able to download a boarding pass to your PDA or cell phone, and scan the barcode at an airport security checkpoint scanner, eliminating the need for a physical printout.

[[Continental | Continental ]] was the first U.S. airline to test paperless boarding passes in late 2007, and has since expanded its Mobile Boarding Pass option for departures from Austin, Boston, Cleveland, Houston, New York’s LaGuardia airport, Newark, San Antonio, and both Dulles and National airports in Washington, D.C.

Other carriers, including Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, and Northwest, are also beginning to introduce paperless boarding options for travelers.

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