The new year is already bringing new challenges for travelers, as well as new questions. According to industry experts willing to prognosticate, the coming 12 months will usher in a mix of good news, bad news and uncertain news. For anyone planning to travel in 2019, it pays to consider their warnings.
Will airline seats keep shrinking?
There’s one key travel issue for 2019 I already raised here in November, when I wrote “Airline seat size: Will FAA bring relief to squeezed flyers?” Domestic airlines — ranging from the Big Three of American, Delta and United to ultra-low-cost carriers such as Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit — are all making seating accommodations tighter. At a press conference at Albany International Airport before Thanksgiving, I noted that shrinking seats affect not only comfort and value, but also pose a health risk due to deep vein thrombosis and a safety risk due to the threat of hampered aircraft evacuations.
The FAA has been given a congressional mandate to examine airline seat standards in the coming months, so we’ll soon learn if regulatory action will be taken. And passenger advocate Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, predicts airline seating will face intense scrutiny in other ways this year: “Airlines will come under fire for falsely advertising available seating when allowing families to select seats on planes. And, DOT will institute a family sitting together rulemaking that will probably become effective in late 2020.” Leocha also believes the courts will order the FAA to re-examine its emergency evacuation testing procedures. In the meantime, here’s some detailed advice on learning more about seat sizes before you book.
For years, technology has been a double-edged sword for travelers – enhancing efficiency, speed and safety while also severely disrupting travel plans when that same technology fails. “The biggest probabilities for changes affecting U.S. travelers in 2019 will be congestion and natural disruptions,” says Paul Ruden, former executive vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Advisors. He asserts that increased congestion is likely, based on forecasts of continued significant global growth in travel demand “running into” constraints on the capacity of destination infrastructure to cope. Adding to this is climate change, which Ruden believes could increase “unpredictable and widespread disruptive and destructive events.”
In 2016, on behalf of Consumer Reports, I joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in calling on the airlines to address widespread and debilitating information technology outages; such occurrences have continued to disrupt tens of thousands of travelers annually. In addition to such outages, Ruden also is concerned about the threat of data breaches, “the defenses against which seem largely helpless.” He notes: “Back in the day, some futurists predicted that the complexity of the digital world would outrun the capacity of humans to cope, and these developments may be evidence of the truth of those predictions.”
What can you do? Keep abreast of schedule deviations and devise alternative plans by using travel professionals or your own mobile devices. Widespread disruptions are not the time to stand in line or stay on hold.
Cruising’s halcyon era?
One sector of the travel industry is poised for record expansion, according to Cheryl Rosen, editor at large for Travel Market Report. She says, “The two biggest changes for 2019 are related: an historic increase in capacity by the cruise companies, and a big return to the use of professional travel agents by consumers looking to book them.” Cruise Lines International Association reports major brands such as Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean are among the lines launching 18 new ships this year, and these offerings will run the gamut on size, up to some of the largest vessels in history. Rosen notes: “You can sail the coast of Croatia on a ship with 35 cabins or drive a race car on a ship with 5,000; you can see any continent, navigate any river, visit the Arctic or the Mekong. Or you can stay close to home off the coast of Alaska or on the Mississippi or the Great Lakes.” These developments could spur untold numbers of travelers to set sail. As Rosen says, “2019 will likely be the year that many of the more than 90 percent of Americans who have never cruised will give it a try.”
Back in October, travel journalist Joe Brancatelli posted a column entitled “Too Many Miles, Too Few Seats.” With airline cabins fuller than ever, is the squeeze to earn a seat via a frequent-flyer program tougher than ever? Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk and the world’s leading authority on loyalty programs, offers his take. But his advice depends in large part on demographics: “Earn or burn? This age-old question is relative to what generation you are as a traveler. Younger members can continue to earn and burn to their hearts’ desire. The middle ages of these program members should look for optimal opportunities to burn toward their bucket list with the right deals, but also save a little for rainy days. And of course those who have toiled in seat 23C for many years likely will want to go full into ‘earn’ mode since their days of being mileage providers will soon be coming to an end and both their travel and their ability to ‘spend’ their way toward seven-digit accounts will be crimped without expense reports.”
Less competition (without mergers)?
As I’ve noted here before, mergers and acquisitions in all sectors of the industry — online travel sites, airlines, car rentals, cruise lines and hotels — have inevitably led to a lack of competition, service decreases and price increases. Now there’s growing concern over competition being harmed not by consolidation, but by government inaction.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, states: “The concentration of airline power in the trans-Atlantic market by a few giant joint ventures should be concerning for consumers and regulators alike. Moreover, a pending request by Delta, Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic to effectively merge their trans-Atlantic operations will make the situation even more concentrated and alarming for consumers. Travelers can expect to face higher fares from less competition while smaller airlines wishing to compete against these giants will find it challenging to gain access to airport infrastructure and takeoff and landing slots in key airports these mega-carriers dominate. Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic need to think long and hard before giving already powerful and dominant alliances even greater leeway to legally collude on fares, scheduling and other matters not in the public interest.” In the interim, the busiest routes to Europe — such as New York-London — often carry the highest fares, so seeking out alternative airports on both sides of the Atlantic can save you money.
The Flight Safety Foundation’s AviationSafetyNetwork reported that commercial aviation’s historically impressive safety record of 2017 wasn’t upheld to the same extent last year. Make no mistake: Air travel remained the statistically safest form of transportation in 2018, even as a record 4.5 billion passengers flew. But as John Cox noted here last month: “Following aviation’s safest year in 2017, this year seems a bit of a letdown.”
That’s because there were 16 fatal airline accidents worldwide, and the number of casualties soared to a five-year high, up from 59 in 2017 to 555, or nearly 10 times as many, in 2018. The worst accidents occurred in locations ranging from Indonesia and Russia to Cuba and Iran, but domestically there also was the fatal Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 on April 17, when a passenger was partially sucked out of the cabin after engine debris punctured a hole in the fuselage. What that event crystallized was the need for both U.S. airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration to remain vigilant, since an almost identical — yet not fatal — incident had already occurred with the same engine type on another Southwest aircraft in 2016.
Brexit: Anyone’s guess
The British government is in the midst of a debacle over the deal it negotiated with the E.U. on travel policies to and from the U.K. But — much like predicting the timeline of a U.S. government shutdown — determining how this will play out is a task better suited to bookmakers than travel analysts. Britain’s departure from the European Union will have myriad effects on passports and travel visas, air service, cruise itineraries, travel taxation and dozens of other issues. But as Leocha notes: “This is still a wait-and-see issue.”
News coverage and speculation abounds, and it will only increase in the days leading up to the March 29 departure deadline, so keep abreast with reliable updates. For Americans with travel plans in the U.K., it’s best to monitor the latest developments on the British government’s own website, which includes the best possible answers to most travel questions.
Stay tuned. And safe travels in 2019.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at email@example.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.
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