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Will the Airlines Ever Listen to Us?

SmarterTravel

A reader who had seen the SmarterTravel posting, “Readers Tell Airlines How to Improve,” asked me, simply:

“Is there any chance the airlines will actually make any of those improvements?”

The short answer would have be something snappy (or sappy) like, “In your dreams,” or “If you believe they will, I’ve got a bridge on either coast I’ll sell you.” Still, you’ll see at least some improvements in 2010. Let’s start with the SmarterTravel readers’ wish list.

Ticketing and Pricing

Apparently, the majority of you don’t like the idea of piling on fees and extras. Sadly, you’ll be disappointed. Almost all the airlines, big and small alike, have resorted to unbundling the base fare from everything else and charging extra. The only way this practice will stop is if the larger lines suddenly find themselves losing big market share to Southwest. If that happens, goodbye baggage fees. So far, however, those big lines have been immune to Southwest’s modest market gains. But keep your eyes on this one.

To the readers who want the flexibility to print their own tickets and boarding passes, I’d say they’ll see some improvements. You can already do that on many lines, and others will probably join as soon as they can get their technology ready. And you can expect lots more transaction capability through the several main “smartphone” varieties, which contain fairly powerful computers.

Scheduling

Constant schedule changes are a major vexation to many readers, and with good reason. Leisure travelers must often make arrangements well in advance—including some nonrefundable arrangements—and suddenly finding that those “confirmed” air seats have disappeared can cause real grief. Here, my take is that 2010 will improve. Provided the recovery doesn’t flounder, we’ve probably seen the end of wholesale schedule cuts, and you might even see schedule growth by next summer.

One area where airlines could do a lot better is in reaccommodating travelers on cancelled flights—both long-term planned cutbacks and short-term unplanned cancellations. Sadly, I don’t expect to see any major voluntary changes in this area. To me, reaccommodation is a more serious problem than tarmac delays, and a Rule 240 requirement is certainly in my “bill of rights” provisions. That means an airline cancelling a flight for any reason other than weather or force majeure would be required to reaccommodate travelers on either its own flights or on any other airline that can get travelers to their destination. In the days before deregulation, such re-accommodations were almost universal, but that practice has been gone for many years. Let’s get it back.

Priority deplaning for travelers with connections is a courtesy that is sometimes offered, sometimes not. That’s an improvement that wouldn’t cost an airline anything to implement, and it, too, should be in an expanded bill of rights.

Customer Service

Certainly, some lines seem to treat customers better than others. Obviously, it’s a management thing: Airlines that really want to excel in customer service manage to do it, at least most of the time. The laggards will make the effort only when they find they’re losing business—and consumers have demonstrated over and over that low fares, not service, drive their ticket purchases.

In-Cabin Comforts

Overall, the big airlines are extremely focused on cabin comforts for premium class travelers, as attested to by the steady increase in business class opulence. But those comfort details—from lie-flat “bed” seats to exotic wine lists—don’t apply to most of us. And, for the rear cabin, most lines are focused on cost reduction rather than product improvement.

One seating development you will see is a trend toward a new design of economy seat with a fixed, rigid back. To “recline,” you slide your seat cushion forward rather than push your seatback backward. Several lines are installing seats with this design in planes to be delivered in 2010, and a few are installing them during major upgrading cycles. Overall, these new seats don’t increase seat room, they just rearrange it. They will please those of you (and me) who don’t normally recline and resent it when the person in front drops his or her seatback in our laps. Instead of the person behind, the new reclining position intrudes on your own space, reducing the distance between your knees and the rigid back ahead of you.

Maybe later in 2010 or the following year, you’ll start to see a few lines install a newer design in which the seats in each three- , four- , or five-seat group are staggered, front to rear, by about three or four inches. The idea is that because shoulder room is the critical determinant of width, staggering the seats means that adjacent shoulders will overlap rather than abut. The idea looks good in theory; my question is how the new arrangement affects getting in and out of window or center seats. The other question is how the airlines will arrange these staggered seats: The manufacturer says airlines have the option of retaining current layouts and giving travelers significantly roomier seating or adding another seat to each row and keeping comfort levels “the same.” Supposedly, Delta is serious about these new seats, and we’ll all be extremely interested in whether they will improve our comfort or stuff still more seats into the crowded cabins.

By the end of 2010—or more likely sometime in 2011—you’ll start to see Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner in U.S. skies. So far, Continental, Northwest (now Delta), and United have ordered the plane, along with dozens of foreign lines. It remains to be seen whether each line will outfit its economy cabin with comfortable eight-across seats or 737-cramped nine-across. In any case and in any class, however, the 787 will improve your in-flight breathing:

  • Cabin pressurization at cruise level will be to 6,000 feet rather than the current standard of 8,000 feet.
  • Cabin air will have significantly greater humidity.

The rival A350 will come along several years later.

De-Facto Worldwide Mergers?

Beyond questions our readers raised, one additional issue could have a big impact in 2010. Many of the world’s largest airlines would like to be able to merge across national boundaries, as much of the world’s other industry and commerce has already done. However, laws in the US (and other countries) limit “foreign” airline ownership to minority status and prohibit outright mergers in which the surviving entity would not comply with local ownership laws. As a result, most of the biggest airlines in the U.S., Asia, and Europe have joined one of three big “alliances” that provide many of the benefits of full merger without breaking any laws. The U.S. government has already granted antitrust immunity allowing some alliance members to collude on prices and schedules, and the biggest non-immunized lines, American and British Airways, are asking for the same treatment.

Although these alliances claim that they benefit consumers by providing “seamless” connections to/from just about anywhere in the world, industry experts are concerned that, as with most such cases, the antitrust immunity will result in less competition and higher fares. If the alliances are left to their own devices, we’ll wind up with what amounts to a world where three big de-facto airlines control most of the market. It hasn’t happened with the alliances so far, but the potential is there—especially as the alliance members grow closer together. Long term, I’m worried.

The Bottom Line

All in all, the airline picture probably won’t get much better in 2010. But it also probably won’t get worse—at least a minimal blessing. Happy New Year!

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