Summer Air Travel Likely To Be Busy But May Be More Pleasant

May 19--Many summer travelers, frustrated with a harsh winter, will eschew the staycation this year and take to the skies, experts say. Along the way, they are likely to find crowded airports, full flights and all those fees, but improvements at the airport and in the flight cabin might make air travel a bit more pleasant.

"I think it is an improving experience," said Richard Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power, which last week released a report on airline customer satisfaction. "I'm not saying people will be delighted like the old days ... when airline travel was considered to be fun and enjoyable, but at least significant efforts are being made to make it better."

Indeed, J.D. Power and several other recent surveys show consumer satisfaction with air travel is the highest it's been in many years.

Since last summer, more passengers will be eligible to speed through airport security lines, and most airlines don't force passengers to turn off electronic devices during takeoffs and landings, thanks to a change in federal regulations. While seats in economy class are likely to be tight, better in-flight entertainment can help travelers forget the loss of knee and elbow room.

"The airlines are focused on continually making the passenger experience better, and even though they might be in the dumpster compared with other industries, the skies are friendlier," Garlick said.

This summer, air travel traffic will rise to its highest level in six years, with a record number of passengers traveling internationally on U.S. carriers, airline industry association A4A reported Thursday. Economic factors such as job growth, rising incomes and higher household net worth will contribute to the bustling skies, said John Heimlich, A4A's chief economist. All told, some 210 million passengers are expected to fly U.S. airlines from June 1 to Aug. 31, up 1.5 percent from 2013.

Airlines have invested money in training their workforces, especially to handle travel in inclement weather, and have invested money in the airports they serve, upgrading concessions and adding power outlets, Heimlich said.

The biggest change to the airline landscape since last summer has been the mega-merger of American Airlines and US Airways in December. Now, the three major airlines, along with large discounter Southwest Airlines, control about 85 percent of the U.S. market. Mergers usually mean more hassles for fliers as airlines combine operations and run into glitches, but the new American Airlines isn't at that stage yet. However, the airlines have moved toward acting as a single carrier -- allowing booking across both networks, some shared benefits for frequent fliers and common checked-bag polices, for example.

Meanwhile, Chicago-based United Airlines seems to have ironed out operational difficulties that plagued its combination with Continental Airlines. However, United has fared poorly in recent customer satisfaction surveys.

Here's a sampling of what air travelers can expect this summer travel season.

For your wallet

Fares: Some 88 percent of Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year, up 11 percentage points year over year, according to Chicago-based Orbitz Worldwide. More than half of travelers surveyed said they would spend $2,000 or more for their summer vacation, versus 44 percent in 2013.

"People are ready to take some vacations and hit some warm-weather spots this year after the crazy-long winter that most of the country has had," said Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor of Orbitz.com. "People are back to taking those weeklong vacations."

Procrastinators who haven't booked yet are likely to find higher airfares, up 6 percent on average over last year, according to Orbitz, but estimates vary. Hotwire.com says domestic average ticket prices are up about 2 percent over last summer.

"The key (to saving money) is being flexible, don't have a specific day in mind," Tornatore said. August will be the best summer month to snag an airfare deal, she said.

Fees: Summer fliers will still have to contend with all those tacked-on fees that airlines implemented in recent years. Most travelers will be charged extra for checked bags -- with Southwest Airlines and JetBlue fliers notable exceptions -- and flight-change fees have rocketed to $200 on some major carriers. Smaller ultradiscount airlines, such Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, even charge for carry-on bags if they must be stored in the overhead compartment.

However, more passengers seem to be resigned to paying fees. A J.D. Power study found that 44 percent of passengers say checked bag fees are reasonable, up from 37 percent last year.

At the airport

On time: Large network airlines in Chicago, United and American, have done OK with on-time rates recently, ranking in the middle of the pack among U.S. airlines. But this summer, it's Southwest fliers who might need to travel with more patience. The discount airline has struggled with being on time, especially out of Midway Airport, since late last summer because of changes it made in its flight schedules that backfired on the carrier and led to widespread delays. It has since padded its schedule, but changes might not be fully realized until the end of the year, Southwest says.

PreCheck: Passengers who signed up for the Transportation Security Administration's trusted traveler program, called PreCheck, can enjoy expedited security screening at airports in Chicago and many other cities around the country. Those who have voluntarily undergone background checks -- and paid $85 for a five-year membership -- can enter special security lines and leave on their shoes, belt and light outerwear and forgo removing laptop computers from their cases or liquids and gels of up to 3 ounces from carry-on bags. PreCheck became available to all U.S. citizens in December. Information is at tsa.gov/tsa-precheck.

Heimlich said many more travelers are signed up for expedited screening this year, and that's good for everybody. "That should benefit the infrequent fliers whose lines are alleviated by virtue of those folks going through a streamlined security process," he said.

Passport kiosks: International travelers landing at O'Hare and Midway airports can now clear the customs process more quickly by using free self-service electronic kiosks, called automated passport control. Instead of filling out a paper customs declaration form, kiosk users are prompted to scan their passport. The kiosk takes a photo of the traveler and asks the passenger to answer questions on a touch screen. A receipt is issued, saving time and reducing the line of passengers in the customs hall. Passport kiosks were added to O'Hare last July and at Midway this March.

O'Hare T5: In April, O'Hare unveiled a $26 million remodeling of international Terminal 5, complete with 24 new upscale shops and restaurants. That's a big change from what airport officials conceded was a "nightmare" of a terminal for international travelers and an "embarrassment" for Chicago.

Inside the flight cabin

Full planes: Expect crowded flights, especially to popular destinations at convenient departure times. Many middle seats are likely to be occupied. Overall, U.S. airlines are adding seats but at a slow pace of less than 1 percent per year, according to A4A. Load factors, how full planes are, are expected to be high over the summer, 85 to 87 percent. Ten of the 15 busiest flying days of the year in U.S. airports are typically in summer, focused around Thursdays and Fridays in mid-June through late-July, according to A4A.

New planes: Airlines are mostly profitable again and plowing money back into their businesses. They have some 1,700 planes on order with 255 scheduled for delivery this year, or roughly one aircraft every weekday, according to A4A. Newly merged American Airlines, for example, took delivery of 19 new aircraft through the end of the first quarter alone, and that number will continue to grow throughout the year at a rate of about one a week, a spokeswoman said. Airlines are upgrading fleets not only for passenger comfort but to take advantage of new, more fuel-efficient aircraft.

Devices: U.S. airline passengers are now able to read on their Kindles and play with their iPhones and iPads during takeoffs and landings. The Federal Aviation Administration late last year cleared use of gadgets to be used during all phases of flight, although voice calls are still verboten and larger items -- such as laptops but not tablet computers -- will have to be stowed during takeoffs and landings.

Wi-Fi: If you're willing to pay, an in-flight Internet connection can help pass the time. Airlines have furiously been adding wireless Internet connectivity, so passengers can continue to email, Facebook and tweet at 30,000 feet. "There is more availability for that kind of technology now for fliers than they saw last year," Tornatore said. Notably in Chicago, United Airlines, which has been a laggard in adding Wi-Fi, has finally been adding connectivity to its planes.

Entertainment: In-flight entertainment options are generally improving, including on-demand television shows and movies. United Airlines recently began offering free in-flight streaming TV and movies for passengers who use their own laptops and Apple devices, a move toward providing video entertainment on personal devices rather than overhead and seatback screens. Compatibility with Android devices will be offered later in the year, the airline said. The service will initially be free and not require buying in-flight wireless Internet service. United and most other airlines are adding seat-based power outlets to keep personal computers and devices charged.

Seats: While many of the cabin upgrades are welcome, some airlines have started cramming more seats in coach by using slimmer seat designs and claiming no loss of passenger legroom.

"Legroom is about the same, but the seat in front is closer to you and feels a bit tighter. At least, that was my experience on United's new slim-line seat last time I flew," said Brett Snyder, a blogger at CrankyFlier.com and operator of a small travel concierge service.

More seat comfort is not likely to be on the agenda for most airlines this summer or any time soon.

"We've looked at the things that really impact customer satisfaction the most, and seat comfort is right up there," J.D. Power's Garlick said. "I don't expect that they're going to do anything about seat comfort any time soon because that means taking out those extra rows and giving up fares.

"That will not likely be happening."

gkarp@tribune.com

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