Between flight cancellations last month at Spirit Airlines that led to a brawl in the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and viral cellphone videos of crew and passenger altercations – most notably a United Airlines passenger being wrestled from his seat and dragged down the aisle – the airline industry has experienced a turbulent spring.
The busy summer season presents its own challenges, beginning with congestion. But a combination of new airline classes of service and security practices seems poised to compound the confusion, even as airlines incrementally increase some of the perks common in decades past, such as free meals.
Here are four ways in which flying this summer will differ from last year.
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Travelers will find at least one compelling reason to take to the skies: low fares. Data from the booking service Kayak shows that coach fares have decreased by 23 percent on average, compared with last summer.
“It’s going to be crowded this summer, and I think we will have a record number of air travelers in part because of low fares,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a site that tracks fare sales.
Low-cost carriers are definitely exerting pressure on traditional carriers.
Alex Chang, a data scientist at Hopper
The airfare prediction site Hopper forecast that foreign low-cost carriers will increase their capacity to the United States by 61 percent this month, compared with last June. These include Europe-based airlines like Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW Air. The latter is advertising flights from $189 one way between Pittsburgh and Copenhagen and $189 from New York to Frankfurt, both with stops in Reykjavik, Iceland.
“Low-cost carriers are definitely exerting pressure on traditional carriers,” said Alex Chang, a data scientist at Hopper. “We’ve seen quite a few exciting fare sales as airlines try to compete against each other, and also through the major airline alliances.”
For those who don’t mind connecting flights, alliance wars can yield low fares. For example, American Airlines and British Airways, which are allied, may go after routes dominated by other alliances such as Delta Air Lines and Air France, by offering cheap flights to Paris with a stop in London. In response, Delta and Air France may offer bargains to London via Paris.
New economy classes
Earlier this year, the largest U.S. airlines further compartmentalized their economy cabins, adding basic economy on the low end and premium economy on the high-end.
With basic economy, legacy airlines are taking on no-frills carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant. New to American and United, and already in place at Delta, basic economy does not permit passengers to make a seat selection before check-in. American and United prohibit basic fliers from bringing aboard luggage that requires space in overhead bins. Travelers on these tickets can check their bags at check-infor $25 one way.
It’s almost like putting up a virtual curtain between the last few rows of the cabin, and saying not all economy is the same anymore.
Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the industry newsletter Airline Weekly
Though the airline booking engines make clear what the ticket does and does not include, the most potentially distressing aspect of the ticket is that a family may purchase this bottom-barrel fare only to discover that they will most likely not be seated together. Middle seats may be the only remaining options by the time they get seat assignments.
“It’s almost like putting up a virtual curtain between the last few rows of the cabin, and saying not all economy is the same anymore,” said Seth Kaplan, the managing partner of the industry newsletter Airline Weekly. “It basically gives people who really just want safe, cheap, reliable travel a way to get that but not anything else.”
In the forward-most part of the economy section, American Airlines has introduced premium economy on international flights between Dallas and Madrid, Paris, São Paulo and Seoul. In July it will add Chicago-Paris flights, with Los Angeles-Tokyo in August. Premium economy fliers get roomier, more comfortable seats with in-seat power outlets, better meals and priority boarding.
“Premium economy on American will resemble their domestic short-haul business class,” said Hobica of Airfarewatchdog. “It’s a bigger, more comfortable seat with more padding.”
Delta is introducing its own version, called Delta Premium Select, in the fall. It will include upgraded chairs, amenity kits, blankets and food described as “seasonal, regional meals.”
If you are flying back to the United States from 10 airports in the Middle East or northern Africa, expect to check your large electronic devices either in your bags or at the gate.
Citing security threats and airline bombings, including a 2016 detonation in-flight on a Somalia carrier, the Department of Homeland Security has mandated that any item larger than a cellphone, including a laptop or e-reader, is prohibited in the cabins of flights departing from Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates; Amman, Jordan; Cairo; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; Istanbul; Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia; and Kuwait.
American and European officials have discussed expanding the laptop ban on all trans-Atlantic flights, but nothing has been announced.
Fliers may find extra inspections of their devices at security lanes. Ten U.S. airports are testing expanded screening of smaller electronic devices, such as tablets, at some security lanes. As laptops are now treated, smaller items are to be fished out of bags and placed in separate bins for security screening at the major airports in Boise, Idaho; Boston; Colorado Springs; Detroit; Fort Lauderdale; Los Angeles; Lubbock, Texas; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Las Vegas and Phoenix.
When my laptop and 35-millimeter camera were flagged during a plane change in Doha recently, I was forced to turn them over to a patient Qatar Airways employee who wrapped them in plastic, packaged them in a cardboard box, bagged the box in a strong plastic bag with a tamper-proof seal and ticketed it as checked baggage. After landing in Chicago, I redeemed them from a staffed area in baggage claim, costing me anxiety, of course, but just a little extra time.
It’s not all bad news at 30,000 feet. Some airlines, including Delta and American, have reintroduced free food service in economy, largely on transcontinental flights. And where they haven’t offered free food, they have upgraded what’s for sale. Now instead of just snack boxes, United Airlines offers a cheeseburger and fries or penne pasta and meatballs for purchase during lunch and dinner hours on domestic flights.
On the ground, expedited security clearance is also expanding to international carriers for passengers who have membership in TSA PreCheck. The program of the Transportation Security Administration, which requires submitting an application, undergoing an in-person interview and fingerprinting and paying $85 for the five-year term, grants enrollees expedited security at domestic airports. In April, the Department of Homeland Security said 97 percent of PreCheck fliers waited in security lines fewer than five minutes.
Many major foreign carriers do not participate in PreCheck, and the expedited security lanes are consequently not available in most international terminals at airports here. But this year, the TSA announced 18 new partner airlines, including Avianca, Copa Airlines, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic among foreign carriers, bringing the total to 37 participating carriers.
Singapore Airlines now offers PreCheck at its four U.S. gateways, including Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, making it the first Asian carrier to join in.