Up in the air: 2013 will be a mix of higher fares, bundled options for air travelers
Airfares will be on the rise in 2013, and those niggling airline fees will metamorphose into optional bundles of services.
Meanwhile, onboard amenities, such as Internet access, entertainment options and refreshed interiors, will abound among U.S. carriers, but tight seating in coach probably won't improve.
And 2013 might be the year you'll finally be able to keep your smartphone, iPad or Kindle turned on during takeoffs and landings.
Those are some of the predictions airline industry experts foresee in the new year. Here's the lowdown on fares, fees and flight experience for 2013.
Higher fares forecast
Airlines pushed through six fare increases in 2012. Expect a similar number in the new year, said Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see airfares rise like they did this year, between 3 and 6 percent domestically," Seaney said. That's because airlines will succeed in properly balancing supply and demand by trimming the number of seats they offer to match "decent, but bordering on tepid, demand."
Fares are typically driven by four main factors: competition, most of all, then supply, demand and oil prices. "If you look at those drivers, they are, for the most part, on the airlines' side, which gives them pricing power," Seaney said.
That doesn't mean there won't be good airfare deals on some flights on some routes. And consumers will still see lower prices during off-peak days, such as Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday departures and off-peak seasons, such as late January and early February. Like this year, summertime fares probably will stay relatively high, he said.
Airline mergers can also affect fares, and a huge one could take place early in 2013. American Airlines and US Airways are in talks about combining.
Fees get a makeover
The most noticeable trend in recent years with airline fees is that there are more of them: fees for checked bags, aisle seats, onboard meals, among many others.
"What we hear is that people pay their fare and get to the airport and feel they're constantly being nickeled-and-dimed to death for things that used to be included," said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org.
The top five U.S. carriers alone generated more than $12 billion in fees in 2011, with even more expected through 2012, according to the PwC report.
What consumers call fees, airlines call "unbundling" - making a la carte choices from services that used to be included in the fare.
A likely trend for 2013 might be called "rebundling," airlines packaging a few now-optional services and charging for a tier of service.
American Airlines kicked things off in December by introducing packages of airfare upgrades available on round-trip flights. For example, its Choice Essential tier will get you a checked bag, priority boarding and no fee if you need to change your flight reservation. It costs a flat $68 extra per round trip. Its next tier, for $88, includes those perks plus a 50 percent frequent-flier mileage bonus, same-day flight change, same-day standby and a premium beverage, such as an alcoholic drink onboard.
Gadgets cleared for takeoff?
It was about a year ago that actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off a plane before takeoff in Los Angeles. He reportedly refused to halt his smartphone playing of "Words With Friends," an electronic word game like Scrabble.
Baldwin and the flying public might get good news during 2013.
The Federal Aviation Administration will be reviewing its policy that forces passengers to turn off their portable electronic devices, such as smartphones, laptops, tablet computers and e-readers, during takeoffs and landings - technically, below 10,000 feet.
In December, both the Federal Communications Commission and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., urged the FAA to finally allow electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. McCaskill, a member of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over communications and aviation policy, points out the "absurdity" of the ban, especially given the FAA allows pilots to use iPads to replace their paper flight manuals in the cockpit.
"The current rules are inconvenient to travelers, don't make sense and lack a scientific basis," McCaskill said in a statement, adding that she is "prepared to pursue legislative solutions should progress be made too slowly."
It's an open secret that many people don't turn off their phones and portable devices when told to on a plane, Seaney said. "The bottom line is that if it was dangerous, they would confiscate your phones as you got on the plane," he said.
Hanni said she was "almost positive" the FAA in 2013 will pave the way for use of electronics below 10,000 feet. "The FAA will be laughed at for making this a big deal for so many years," she said. "It's just stupid."
Use of wireless phones or other electronics for voice calls is not being considered in that FAA review, and experts say it doesn't have the same support.
Cruising in comfort
Inside the aircraft cabin, passengers during 2013 will continue to see significant changes. Many airlines will be taking delivery of new planes, while others are upgrading cabin interiors.
While Wi-Fi has been available on many domestic flights for a while, the difference in 2013 will be seeing more airlines offering connectivity on trans-Atlantic flights, which require Internet access via satellites rather than ground towers.
For example, American Airlines has said its new Boeing 777-300ERs, scheduled to start flying early in 2013, will have satellite Wi-Fi. And United Airlines and Delta Air Lines also plan to outfit more planes in 2013 with it.
Another trend is not so welcomed. Some airlines, in an effort to maintain profits, are stuffing more seats onto planes, offering less legroom and elbow room in economy class - even on longer, international flights.
Another trend for 2013 will be wireless inflight entertainment - offering on-demand movies, TV shows and other entertainment that passengers can view and listen to on their own devices, such as a laptops and tablet computers.
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