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Q&A: Traveler Editor on Air Travel Today

Heather Morgan Shott
for National Geographic News
July 17, 2003
 
Travelers are slowly getting used to airline ultimatums: Fly where we want you to, when we want you to, or pay dearly for your ticket. But even though the airlines show no sign of changing their ways this travel season, you can still work the system—and save. Traveler Editor Keith Bellows gives the inside scoop.


How has the airline industry, as we've known it, changed?

Right now it's badly broken, because the hub-and-spoke system no longer works. The system was set up in the 1970s so that flights on lesser-traveled routes would be routed through major cities. That way, the airlines could pick up additional passengers and pocket more revenue. People living in Knoxville, Tennessee, and flying to New York, for example, must first stop in places like Atlanta, Chicago, or Cincinnati. The problem is the hub-and-spoke system wasn't created to accommodate the volume of people that are flying today. So we were seeing a lot more delays and cancellations—which have now been significantly reduced because the airlines are flying fewer planes. And as a result, the major airlines are hemorrhaging money. In some ways, however, the breakdown of the hub-and-spoke system is helping travelers by allowing low-cost carriers like Southwest and Jet Blue do well.

What does the success of these low-cost carriers mean for travelers?

Low-cost carriers offer direct flights on a select number of routes, so you can get to a place in half the time it would take with the hub-and-spoke system. These airlines choose only popular routes that will enable them to fill their planes. Meaning they turn a profit and can therefore offer cheap fares. Right now, for example, you can fly round-trip between Philadelphia and Boston from $68 on AirTran; Seattle and Salt Lake City from $172 on Southwest; and Rochester and San Juan, Puerto Rico, from $288 on Jet Blue. In fact, the top six low-cost carriers reported a 17 percent increase in traffic in the first six months of 2003, when all of the major airlines saw a decrease in traffic.

What is being done to help ease airport congestion?

Flying is more time-consuming than ever before. Not only are thousands of people forced to travel out of their way with the hub-and-spoke system, they also have to deal with extra airport security measures. In addition to the new practices that were put in place after 9/11, most everyone must take their shoes off when passing through security. But fortunately automated check-in with e-tickets is helping to create shorter lines at ticket counters. Which is making checking baggage easier and faster. And the lines may get even shorter as the airlines begin to allow travelers to print out tickets from their home computers and then drop off luggage at designated places near gates.

How have frequent flier miles changed?

If you're flexible, meaning you'll travel during low season, you can still make frequent flier miles work for you. When American Airlines first launched the frequent flier system it was brilliant. But frequent flier miles became a devalued commodity when consumers could earn them by buying a new car or by using a specific credit card. There are so many earned miles out there that if they were all cashed in at once, the airlines would go out of business overnight. So it will get more and more difficult to redeem your miles for air travel. In fact, new policies are emerging on how many miles it takes to earn free flights and upgrades. On United, for example, you now need 25,000 miles instead of 20,000 for a free domestic flight. Airlines are also pushing people to use up their miles on magazine subscriptions, groceries, and other products to shift the liability to other companies. And I suspect that transferring miles to friends and family members will eventually be banned. Which is a real problem because the airlines will then be reneging on their original promise to loyal customers.

Airlines are reportedly hoping to entice travelers by selling catered meals and other extras. Does this really work?

No, consumers are voting with their wallets. So many will travel on the airline that offers the cheapest ticket. If you live in Washington, D.C., and you want to fly directly to Long Beach, California, for example, you can probably save at least $150-200 one-way by flying on Southwest. You'll have to drive 45 minutes to BWI, park miles from the airport, and stand in line for two hours. But to many people the savings are worth it. A lot of businesses think so, too. Many business travelers now are forced to fly on discount carriers to help cut costs—in fact, a recent survey of business travel managers revealed that their use of discount airlines was roughly 73 percent greater this year than last. This practice of offering catered meals is an example of the menu approach to flying that many of the airlines are adopting. First you pay for your ticket. Then you pay to check extra baggage. Then you pay for food. Pretty soon they'll be charging people to use the restroom.

Are there any new strategies for finding low fares?

The same rules still apply. To save money, you're going to have to spend time looking for the deals. Low-cost carriers don't partner with Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, or any of the other online travel agents. Instead, you must go directly to their Web site—and in most cases, book online. Even the major airlines that list prices on Expedia and Orbitz might still offer lower fares on their own sites. So really the best thing to do is to spend as much time comparison shopping as possible. In the end, it will pay off. Also, always read the fine print. On bidding sites like Priceline and Hotwire you could get a really low rate and then suddenly find out that you're traveling from New York to Miami via Dallas or Denver. Sure, it's cheaper. But you're going to be exhausted by the time you get there. And remember that when you use any independent online travel agent, you're dealing with that agent not the airline. So if something goes wrong, you might still have to pay full price—even if the airline is offering a refund.

What do you predict the airline industry will be like in 20 years?

Overall, there will be an increase in air travel. With business travel, we're going to see a consortium where businesses buy blocks of tickets on routes that people in their companies fly most. Airlines will scramble for market share, more low-cost carriers will be launched, and it's highly possible that some airlines will go out of business. Eventually American travelers will accept how long it takes to get through airport security. European airports have just as many checks and balances as airports in the U.S., and the people there just endure it. And in India, for example, you're inspected at least six times before you can even get on a plane. We've just been really spoiled by years of being able to breeze through security. The cost of flying may even go down if airlines start integrating technological efficiencies that are not yet invented or widely available—like the electric cell batteries that are being tested by Boeing. Another example: Delta plans to spend $200 million over the next three years to develop technology that will "change the way people use airports" and presumably cut the costs of doing business. All bets are off, of course, if we have more terrorist incidents or there is a world oil crisis.
 

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