Here’s the good news: Airfares are down. According to fare-prediction app Hopper, rates in September dropped a substantial 18 percent from the previous year. And all signs point to a bottoming-out this month, at an average domestic round-trip price of $204. Now, the bad: Airline consolidation and the continued softening of the European economy, among other concerns, have some analysts nervous about the future of flying. But don’t panic just yet. Although the following warning signs seem to indicate that things could get worse for fliers, there may be ways to ease at least some of the pain.
Pain point 1
Last fall, Germany-based Lufthansa Group, which includes Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Swiss International Air Lines, began charging a booking fee of 16 euros for any flight not sold directly by the airline. The move compensates for the fees airlines pay to travel agencies, especially those online. While it may not seem significant now, experts say other airlines are watching and may match the program if it doesn’t significantly dent demand.
Says Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, “All airlines are interested in it. If they get direct bookings, it’s both a cost savings and a revenue enhancement. They’re not paying commissions and fees, and they’re interacting directly with travelers and can upsell services they can buy elsewhere, like travel insurance or packages with rental cars.”
What you can do: Even Lufthansa lets you off the hook if you book directly, but it pays to compare fares if you prefer to use an online agency like Expedia.
Pain point 2
Will there come a day when $25 for a checked bag to Asia sounds like a good deal? Perhaps, if other airlines copy the baggage policy introduced last fall by Etihad Airways. While the carrier offers free checked bags on international flights, it divides the world into three zones and pegs excess-baggage fees to distance flown. On flights to and from the U.S., the cost of a third bag will range from $210 (if purchased online) to $300 (at the airport).
“Why should they charge $25 for a 3,000-mile flight as well as for a 100-mile flight?” asks George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog. “That’s something we may see in the future. Also, many charge for lap children on international flights. Why not on domestic flights?”
What you can do: Travel light, and keep an eye on shifting fee policies.
Pain point 3
If you’ve flown on some of the new or newly retrofitted aircraft from Alaska, Delta, United and other airlines, you might find in-seat power and personal seatback video screens. The in-flight magazines and other media are better arranged in the seatback, too. But perhaps an hour in, you might notice something else: The seats are more uncomfortable than ever. Many of the Recaro Basic Line 3520 seats found on these airlines have thinner padding, and the bottoms seem to reach to only mid-thigh, which feels more like a hard bench than a real chair.
Less seat means lighter weight loads, and that means fuel savings for airlines. That could be good for fares, but it does nothing to improve in-flight moods.
What you can do: If you can’t upgrade to business class, at least use the SeatGuru site to find the best seats available.
Pain point 4
Challenges to Open Skies
The U.S. has more than 100 Open Skies agreements, which allow unlimited market access to foreign airlines. But America’s legacy carriers, including American, Delta and United, would like to limit Open Skies access for several Persian Gulf region carriers. They claim those carriers benefit from government subsidies, putting domestic airlines at a competitive disadvantage. Consumer advocates, meanwhile, say blocking the agreement may raise airfares.
“Historically, shifts toward protectionism have ended up hurting markets and choking off growth and job creation,” says U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow. “Travel to and within the U.S. has lately been under assault from protectionist, anti-competitive forces, and the move against Open Skies is the latest example.”
What you can do: Wait for the government to weigh in.