The airline industry is struggling--no secret there. Rising fuel costs have raised ticket prices to uncomfortable levels, for travelers and airlines. In their battle to keep ticket costs low, carriers have decided to travel the fee route, charging extra for everything from peanuts to pillows.
Amenities once thought of as free perks no longer exist or have a price tag. Bags might as well require their own tickets. First it was a charge for the second checked bag; now most airlines charge $15 or more for the first one.
Entrepreneurs who travel a lot will have to find new and creative ways to save as they navigate the increasingly complex skies.
"[Airlines will] trim the fat and put the price tag on the amenities before they raise the ticket cost," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor of Travelzoo, a website dedicated to travel deals, tips and trends. "That's why JetBlue charges $7 for a pillow. I don't doubt airlines will pick premium seats and tag on extra fees to them."
Pretzels and cookies are a thing of the past for economy class on United Airlines. And its free lunches for domestic business class passengers disappear Oct. 1.
But consumers will ultimately let the airlines know their limits. In early September, United Airlines addressed passengers' concerns when it scrapped a plan to charge $9 for a sandwich on international flights.
Expect More Cutbacks
In the next six to 12 months, consumers will see even more dramatic cutbacks--on the heels of the eight biggest airlines slashing 26,000 jobs and taking 465 planes out of service because of high fuel costs and record losses.
"Airlines are so much in the red they have to limit capacity and up fares 15 percent to really become solvent again," Saglie says. "I think we'll see a lot of mergers and scrapped services. Things like meals and blankets will be the first to go."
"This summer seats were cut, but not nearly as markedly as people will see now that it's after Labor Day," says airline industry professional Jerry Chandler, an aviation writer of more than 20 years and daily blogger on Cheapflights.com. "If you're booking for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you should be booking now. It's that far out now if you're going to find a good rate."
There is some good news: Fewer seats mean there will be fewer delays and cancellations. But ticket prices are expected to remain high, even as oil prices fall a little.
The bad news is carriers are leaving smaller regional airports, frequent-flier miles are being devalued and business traveler airfares could increase 25 percent within the next year, according to Saglie.
"It's going to be harder to find free seats up there," Chandler says.
Chris Lopinto, a partner with ExpertFlyer.com, a site that offers tips on airline flights and fares for frequent travelers, says miles can be used to take a puddle hopper to another airport served by the carrier that pulled out of your home airport. "[Or] if you need to buy a ticket on a different airline, the airline that pulled out will often allow you to do that now," Lopinto says.
"While we're not necessarily seeing fees to redeem the miles, we're seeing larger fees to change award tickets," Lopinto adds.
Businesses Have to Adapt
Entrepreneurs who fly frequently will have to adjust their mind-set and the way they travel to save in the months ahead, industry experts say.
"There's no doubt that with [people's expenses] getting tighter, business travelers are wondering how far they can stretch their dollar," Saglie says. "They're going to need to think more like a consumer and less for the convenience in order to save money."
As a result, Chandler says, businesses are "beginning to adapt meeting schedules such that the people coming to those meetings can get better airfares." They are also setting meetings on days when airfare is traditionally cheaper--on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.
"Sunday is the worst day in the world to fly," Chandler says.
He says while the airline industry is in "dark clouds," experts' best estimates are that this environment will last just two or three years before things start looking a little brighter.
"Newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft are coming on line and, as they do, you'll see an expansion of routes," Chandler says.
"As long as the price of oil is climbing, the flights' prices will be climbing," Lopinto says.
Some relief could come from aviation biofuels derived from algae and switch grass--concepts already approved by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "This will be a liberating factor for the industry," Chandler says.
With all of the on-ground turbulence shaking the airlines and the business travelers that depend on them, the prospect of flying looks pretty bleak, but entrepreneurs can still save money. Experts recommend these tips to keep a little more cash in your account:
- Book as far ahead as you can. Inventory goes up 11 months before flights are scheduled.
- Book Y-up fares. These are fares priced at coach levels but that bump you up to first class.
- Consider day trips to avoid hotel and car-rental expenses.
- Spend $20 at a gym to use its facilities to freshen up rather than rent a hotel room.
- Try to fly one airline or one airline alliance in order to achieve status.
- Consider air taxis, such as the Yellow Air Taxi that flies throughout Florida.
- Cash in miles now, while they're still valuable.
- Consider doing business in cities with good discount carriers, such as Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Fla.; Oakland and Long Beach, Calif.; Houston and Chicago.
- Nonrefundable tickets are the cheapest.
- Look at connections. Adding a stop along the way will reduce the fare considerably.
- Early-morning and late-afternoon flights are usually less expensive.
Pack Light to Avoid Checking a Bag
Here are five tips from Chris Lopinto of ExpertFlyer about how to get all you need into your carry-on bag and still meet the airport's checked-bag size limits:
- Carry-on baggage is limited to a bag that's 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. Since airports are aware that people are trying to avoid checked-baggage fees, they're placing bags in a box to make sure they meet the limits.
- The dimension requirements include the wheels and handles, so make sure you don't have a bag with handles or wheels that protrude too much. The best way to fit the most in your carry-on is to pack from the outside in, layering larger items and stuffing smaller items in any left-over spaces. Also, don't pack items in the outside pockets, as this will add unnecessary bulk.
- Don't despair if a check-in agent says your bag won't fit in the box. Try rearranging items so there's not as much bulge to the bag.
- Pack clothing that can mix and match, so you can bring fewer clothes. Neutrals, blacks and grays can be switched easily, while colors or patterns will require more clothes to match them.
- If you're sticking to just a carry-on, remember that all liquids, gels or aerosols must be in a container no bigger than 3 ounces, carried in a one-quart clear bag so the TSA can inspect it. Remember, you can't bring anything sharp, pointed or blunt on board, so leave the manicure scissors at home.