The quick answer is “not much.” These days, hype supersedes real change; you’ll get “lifestyle” this and “trendy” that without much actual difference from the familiar stuff you got last year—and several years before that. And much of the real change will be focused on new ways of using current technology.
Given the current combination of strong consumer demand and low fuel prices, you’d expect a flurry of airline startup announcements. Surprisingly, so far, the outlook is for fewer startups than you saw last year. Only two of 2014’s developments might have legs:
- Norwegian started challenging the big boys on two of the world’s most important long-haul routes—New York and Los Angeles to London—with really low economy-class fares on at least some of its seats, and a premium economy product that is above average in terms of both seating and price.
- La Compagnie came out of nowhere to start all-business-class flights from Newark to Paris/DeGaulle, at prices that often undercut the giant lines’ premium economy fares.
But several wannabe lines perished, flopped, or never got going. A few leftovers from last year’s list are still in the works, but no new candidates have announced themselves yet:
- Baltia Air Lines is still chugging along toward government approval to fly 747s from New York nonstop to key major Eastern European cities.
- The websites of perennial wannabes Avatar, promising to fly 747s in the continental U.S.; Airline 4, all hype and no specifics; and American West Jets, targeting the South Pacific, look the same as they did a year ago.
- People Express actually got into the air for a while, but canceled all operations following damage to a plane, and most industry mavens seem to think it will never resume service.
- The new Eastern Air Lines showed off a 737 decked out in the colors of the former Eastern. The current version is still trying to get government approvals for scheduled service, and in the meantime plans to be a charter line, but it has announced no specific routes, schedules, or fares yet.
- California Pacific, which looked like a better bet than others, has apparently given up on trying for governmental approval. Industry folks blame government foot-dragging on what looked like a good niche operation.
Airbus managed to deliver one A350 in 2014, but you can expect it to become a more familiar sight in 2015. Most of the deliveries for 2015 will go to European and Asian lines; American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United won’t start getting their planes until 2017 or 2018.
Bombardier promises that it will deliver the first of its new C-Series models sometime in 2015. These planes are designed to compete with the smallest members of the 737 and A320 families and the Embraer 195, offering substantially lower costs and improved passenger comfort with wider seats. So far, no North American airline has ordered any C-Series planes, but they might get some through leasing companies. The most interesting possible use is by Odyssey Airlines, a startup that plans all-business-class flights linking New York and Toronto with London City Airport: Unlike the A319s British Airways uses for its London City Airport flights, the C-Series can take off with enough fuel to make westbound transatlantic flights nonstop.
The updated A320 neo may appear by the end of 2015, but the A330 neo, 737 Max, and 777X updates are still several years in the future. Boeing is considering a “clean sheet” 757 replacement, but hasn’t said anything definite.
Comeback for Protectionism
U.S., Canadian, and European airlines and governments are rethinking the “open skies” agreements they once touted as major accomplishments. The current row is about whether the U.S. government will allow Norwegian to fly into the U.S. through a new subsidiary based in Ireland. But the real long-term worry is about where Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar will fly all those widebody planes they’ve ordered. Don’t be surprised to see restrictions on open skies agreements and calls for stiff protectionist rules in our low-less-friendly skies.
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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.