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Up in the air



Published: Sun, January 6, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

Airlines’ plans for 2013 are ...

Chicago Tribune

Airfares will be on the rise in 2013, and those niggling airline fees will metamorphose into optional bundles of services.

Meanwhile, onboard amenities, such as Internet access, entertainment options and refreshed interiors, will abound among U.S. carriers, but tight seating in coach probably won’t improve.

And 2013 might be the year you’ll finally be able to keep your smartphone, iPad or Kindle turned on during takeoffs and landings.

Those are some of the predictions airline industry experts foresee in the new year. Here’s the lowdown on fares, fees and flight experience for 2013.

HIGHER FARES FORECAST

Airlines pushed through six fare increases in 2012. Expect a similar number in the new year, said Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see airfares rise like they did this year, between 3 [percent] and 6 percent domestically,” Seaney said. That’s because airlines will succeed in properly balancing supply and demand by trimming the number of seats they offer to match “decent, but bordering on tepid, demand.”

Fares are typically driven by four main factors: competition, most of all, then supply, demand and oil prices. “If you look at those drivers, they are, for the most part, on the airlines’ side, which gives them pricing power,” Seaney said.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be good airfare deals on some flights on some routes. And consumers will still see lower prices during off-peak days, such as Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday departures and off-peak seasons, such as late January and early February. Like this year, summertime fares probably will stay relatively high, he said.

Airline mergers can also affect fares, and a huge one could take place early in 2013. American Airlines and US Airways are in talks about combining.

Fliers know full well, however, that the fare isn’t all that counts nowadays. There are those fees.

FEES GET A MAKEOVER

The most noticeable trend in recent years with airline fees is that there are more of them: fees for checked bags, aisle seats, onboard meals, among many others.

“What we hear is that people pay their fare and get to the airport and feel they’re constantly being nickeled-and-dimed to death for things that used to be included,” said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org.

The top five U.S. carriers alone generated more than $12 billion in fees in 2011, with even more expected through 2012, according to the PwC report.

What consumers call fees, airlines call “unbundling” — making a la carte choices from services that used to be included in the fare.

A likely trend for 2013 might be called “rebundling,” airlines packaging a few now-optional services and charging for a tier of service.

“The airline industry is in a period of transition regarding the pricing of its products,” said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, an airline consultant. “Airlines will offer fare products, such as basic, basic-plus and comfort, and allow consumers to purchase their desired level of comfort.”

Another issue that could see action early in 2013 is transparency on all those airline fees.

The Department of Transportation is considering forcing airlines to display optional fees alongside airfares everywhere tickets are sold, so consumers can make an apples-to-apples evaluation of fares.

GADGETS CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF?

It was about a year ago that actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off a plane before takeoff in Los Angeles. He reportedly refused to halt his smartphone playing of “Words With Friends,” an electronic word game like Scrabble.

Baldwin and the flying public might get good news during 2013.

The Federal Aviation Administration will be reviewing its policy that forces passengers to turn off their portable electronic devices, such as smartphones, laptops, tablet computers and e-readers, during takeoffs and landings — technically, below 10,000 feet.

Pressure in Washington is mounting.

In December, both the Federal Communications Commission and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., urged the FAA to finally allow electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. McCaskill, a member of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over communications and aviation policy, points out the “absurdity” of the ban, especially given the FAA now allows pilots to use iPads to replace their paper flight manuals in the cockpit.

CRUISING IN COMFORT

Inside the aircraft cabin, passengers during 2013 will continue to see significant changes. Many airlines will be taking delivery of new planes, while others are upgrading cabin interiors.

“Finally, after over a decade, airlines are going to spend some capital,” Seaney said. “You saw a little bit of it [in 2012], you’ll see a lot more of it in 2013, taking delivery of new aircraft — not to expand their fleet but to replace what’s there.”

Onboard wireless Internet access is an example.

While Wi-Fi has been available on many domestic flights for a while, the difference in 2013 will be seeing more airlines offering connectivity on trans-Atlantic flights, which require Internet access via satellites rather than ground towers.

Another trend is not so welcomed. Some airlines, in an effort to maintain profits, are stuffing more seats onto planes, offering less legroom and elbow room in economy class — even on longer, international flights.

Another trend for 2013 will be wireless inflight entertainment — offering on-demand movies, TV shows and other entertainment that passengers can view and listen to on their own devices, such as a laptops and tablet computers.

That’s not benevolence, however. Offering better entertainment is mostly about helping passengers forget about their cramped seat, said Mary Kirby, editor-in-chief of Airline Passenger Experience magazine.

“It’s about distracting the brain from the pain,” she said.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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