As you know if you read this website, I’m no fan of air travel. Flying has become an obstacle course these days, and it seems like every week brings some new development that makes things even crazier. While we’re standing in an ex-ray booth without our shoes, the airlines are busy coming up with new ways to wring a few more bucks out of us.
The latest crop of news, bad and good, comes from a number of sources, including the Travelskills website and even Tripadvisor. And it starts with an alarming item about an airline taking away another basic necessity we all depend on. What’s next — standing room only?
Want to use the overhead bin? Pay up
You may have thought “economy” was about as low as you could go on the airline pecking list. But United Continental, the world’s second-biggest airline, has announced a new class, called “basic economy”, that’s another step lower. Basic economy passengers get the lowest fares, but there’s no reserved seating, they board the plane last — and worst of all, they can’t use the overhead bins.
They’re restricted to one carry-on bag, and it has to fit under the seat. Want to stick it up top? Sorry, that’s for the people who paid more. But don’t worry, by the time you get on the plane, the overhead bins will probably be full anyway.
I guess this could save a few bucks for business flyers travelling with just a briefcase. But it means that people like me who’ve gotten used to slipping our 20-inch carry-on into the overhead bin will no longer be able to get the best fare. The airline says it’s doing a service for people looking for the cheapest rate. But I suspect the basic economy fare will soon be just like today’s bargain fare, and the rest of us will pay more.
I’m not too surprised this has happened; with more people flying carry-on these days, the fight for space in the overhead bins can become fierce. And the new budget airlines have made a business model of offering cheap fares and then charging for every service. So it’s hard not to expect the major airlines to get in on the act.
Still, I hope there’s enough pushback from travellers to give United second thoughts. The airlines are making their biggest profits in history — haven’t they squeezed us enough?
Disappearing air fares
Ever wondered if you were seeing all the flights when you went shopping on an online search engine? The answer is no, and the U.S. government is considering whether it should look into the reasons why.
According to the Travel Technology Association, a group representing the online travel sites, this is a problem that has been around for a few years. The dispute has seen airlines including Delta and American block their fares from appearing on Tripadvisor, Hipmunk, CheapoAir and a number of other booking sites.
The airlines say these booking engines are sending customers to third-party sites in order to book their flights, costing them booking fees and commissions. And, they say, they have a right to dictate where and how they sell their services. Critics argue that forcing travellers to go to the airlines’ sites wastes their time and doesn’t let them see if there’s a cheaper price out there.
The U.S. Transportation Department is now seeking comments from the public on whether it should step in and regulate airlines’ ability to withhold their information. A petition was even circulated by Tripadvisor this week. If it succeeds, you might find a few more results when you go searching for a flight.
Bye bye, seatback screen
That little screen on the seat in front of you has become a standard part of flying, but its days could be numbered too. According to Travelskills, American Airlines’ new 737 MAX airplanes, used for domestic routes, won’t have them. In a memo to employees, the airline noted that 90 percent of passengers now fly with a cellphone, tablet or laptop, and prefer to stream media on them.
American will let passengers stream entertainment from its onboard system for free. And it’s bringing in a new, faster wi-fi system for those who want to get their entertainment online — for a fee. It hasn’t decided whether to leave the screens off its other new planes, but said it expects seatback monitors to be obsolete within a few years.
I guess it’s all progress, but what about the baby boomers and pre-boomers who aren’t so tech-savvy? Looks like it’s time for them to get a tablet.
More cut-rate contenders
Finally, there is some good news for American flyers — as long as they’re happy to travel light. More of those budget airlines are flying from the U.S., and the list of destinations is growing fast. So, more low-low fares, accompanied by the now-familiar extra fees for baggage, reserved seats and anything else they can think of.
First up, Norwegian Air, a low-cost transatlantic airline that has caused a stir with cut-rate flights from the U.S. to London, is planning to start flying from the New York area to Edinburgh, Scotland this summer. One-way fares are expected to be as low as $69 U.S. To cut costs, the airline will fly out of places like Stewart Airport, about 95 kilometres (60 miles) north of New York City.
Norwegian is also increasing service to London from New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. And its new Irish subsidiary is set to start flights into the U.S. East Coast from Cork and Shannon airports in Ireland this year.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, Malaysia’s budget airline AirAsia X is making plans to launch flights to Hawaii and other U.S. destinations. AirAsia X flies to 120 airports in Asia, and offers one welcome perk: passengers can fly through Kuala Lumpur or other Asian hubs to their destination without going through immigration. Does that mean no redundant security line too?
The airline has another overdue feature: eight economy rows located behind the Premium cabin are designated as a “quiet zone” — no one under 12 allowed. Hate to be a grouch, but that almost makes up for the extra fees.
That’s the airline news as of Jan. 27, 2017. And if it’s not particularly cheery, well, don’t be surprised. It’s ironic that these days, the airlines are actually making good profits, thanks to a string of bankruptcies and mergers that has resulted in fewer competing flights. But nonetheless, they’re feverishly cutting every corner, and devising new ways to sell us things that used to come free.
It’s at least partly the result of the online booking sites themselves, which allow us to seek out the rock-bottom fare instead of just booking our favourite airline. And it’s partly the result of the new wave of budget airlines, which have started a race to the bottom for economy fares. Where is it all going to end? Stay tuned …