How Air Travel Will Change in 2018
For air travelers, 2017 has been quite a year: a passenger was dragged off an overbooked United flight, major airlines rolled out a “basic economy” class that represents a new low in creature comforts, the Trump administration scuttled a pro-consumer policy rule that was supposed to make it easier to find out how much you have to pay to check a bag, and the storied 747 jumbo jet flew for the last time under U.S. colors. But whatever happens in Washington or in airline boardrooms, fliers may get some relief from some of the more vexing aspects of air travel in 2018: airlines and airports are rolling out a slew of innovations that could at least take some of the sting out of getting from point A to B. Here's what to expect.
Checking In Will Be a Thing of the Past
Whether it’s online, via a kiosk or in person, passengers have always assumed they need to check in with their airline. Well, think again: airlines have figured out that they can dispense with that cumbersome drill. “You’ve booked your ticket and paid for it; we know who you are—why do you need to check in?” says none other than Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta. The only prerequisite is that you must first download Delta’s app; then, 24 hours before departure, the airline will automatically check you in, and your boarding pass will show up on your mobile device. Lufthansa and its partner Swiss are automatically checking in select passengers as well, and Southwest's "Early Bird" customers have this option, too. Look for the concept to spread next year as airlines—as well as their customers—see the light.
Robots Will Be There to Help You
Help is on the way for those times when even the kiosks get backed up: more airports are deploying robots that will “roam” lobby floors and help you handle transactions. A new model out from appliance maker LG can scan boarding passes and give detailed directions in multiple languages. Naturally, the gizmo first appeared at Silicon Valley’s San Jose hub, as well as in Oakland, and will be arriving at Seoul Incheon Airport just in time for the 2018 Seoul Olympics.
In-Flight Wi-Fi Will Get Much Better
Uninterrupted, high-speed internet—with at-home speeds and bandwidth—is coming to the passenger cabins of jets flying over oceans, the proverbial last frontier. Insiders say 2018 will be the year when this aim attains critical mass. Airlines at the forefront of this initiative include Lufthansa, Singapore, and Cathay: they’ll charge for this, of course, but early indications are that rates will stay within the $10 to $30 range, depending on the length of the flight.
Other providers are upping their game too; Gogo, which currently works with Delta and dozens of other airlines to provide in-flight Wi-Fi, is rolling out the a satellite-based system that can offer speeds of up to 70 megabits per second. Free texting will also take off: Alaska rolled out this perk in January and Delta followed in September, with American saying that the service will be available "soon."
Biometric Identification Will Speed Things Up
Delta, JetBlue, and other lines are testing biometric technology, like fingerprints and iris scans, to speed up the security screening process for passengers—starting with those who already have TSA PreCheck status.
Airlines like KLM and Lufthansa also are experimenting with facial biometric boarding procedures, which will scan passengers’ faces and speed up the boarding process. It works like this: Interested fliers register at the airport by scanning their documents and face at a kiosk; when it's their turn to board, they simply stroll through a separate, self-service gate that matches their face with the scans captured at registration. Lufthansa is testing the technology at hubs in Los Angeles and Frankfurt.
You’ll "Talk" Your Way Onto a Flight
Now that we’re all barking questions at our Amazon Alexa or Google Home speakers, how about taking care of travel plans while cooking dinner or sorting your laundry? Voice-enabled airline reservations are taking off, with online travel giants like Expedia and Kayak enabling screen-free searches as an alternative to the clunky and frustrating process of scrolling through interminable displays of flight and hotel choices. Look for more airlines to jump in as the AI and machine learning technology evolve. Next up? Virtual reality headsets that let you "test drive" an airline seat or a hotel bed before upgrading, now being trialled by European travel tech giant Amadeus.
Waiting in an Airport Will Get More Pleasant
Airports are positioning more wayfinder beacons around terminals, to help you predict how long you’ll cool your heels at the TSA checkpoint and—at some monster hubs like Atlanta or Heathrow—give you an estimate of how long it will take you to walk from, say, an airport lounge to your gate. And they’re offering some welcome distractions, too, with new apps like Airport Sherpa and AtYourGate that will deliver grub to the gate from a variety on on-site eateries. And at a growing number of hubs like Newark Airport and Houston, concession manager OTG is installing banks of iPads that let you order food with a tap of the screen and while you’re waiting, check your email or surf the net.
International Fliers Will Have More Choices
Every airline flying across the Atlantic knows that Norwegian Air is the carrier to beat—it’s growing at an incredible rate, what with new routes to more than a dozen U.S. cities this year, including smaller airports like Stewart in Newburgh, N.Y. In 2018, expect to see more wannabes jump into the fray, with British Air’s Level expanding to fly routes like Paris-New York, and Primera, a Danish budget line, launching non-stops across the pond with the now-requisite $99 starter fares. Mainstream airlines aren’t sitting by while these interlopers muscle in: American next year will drop fares on many flights to Europe to dirt-cheap levels à la Norwegian, but with a predictable spate of high fees—like a $60 one-way bag check fee.
Comparing Flight Prices Will Get More Difficult
Will fares rise, stay level, or drop? That’s never been easy to answer, but determining good prices (and when to buy) is going to get more frustrating. Typically, airlines jack up fares to pass along higher fuel prices or labor costs, and if the economy chugs along and there isn't a shock to energy costs, there should still plenty of good deals out there in 2018—at least on routes where there’s ample competition. Both Delta and American are expanding their deep-discount basic-economy class globally next year; Southwest will start flying to Hawaii by year end, and is already promising to beat the competition in that market.
But ferreting out deals will get more difficult. Fees on everything from bags to seat assignments are steep, and sometimes equal the base fare itself. (Travelers paid a record $1.2 billion to check bags in the third quarter of this year alone.) And those fees let the airlines do an end-run around traditional price advertising: they can offer what looks like a good fare, but inflate it substantially with a slew of add-ons. In short, even if a fare looks good, it will be more important to read the fine print—if you can find it, that is.
The Gap Between the Front and Back of the Plane Will Grow
U.S.-based airlines are finally getting their act together in the pointy end of the plane, which lets them better compete with the Emirates and Singapore Airs of the world. Next year, look for more long-distance flights to sport new pod-suites with lie flat beds, giving those up front more living space and privacy: United will expand its Polaris business-class product to new markets in Asia and Europe; the “Delta One” business-class suites will expand to more routes after having just debuted on that carrier’s new A350s.
But elbow room could get scarcer in the back of the plane, where a number of airlines, including American, United, and even top-ranked foreign lines like Emirates and Air France, are cramming in 10 seats across in coach on their 777s, in rows that used to comfortably (more or less) accommodate nine.
Source: CondéNast Traveler.