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From mergers to microjets to no more coffee!

The past year saw merger mania in the airline industry, as well as the introduction of new TSA rules forcing passengers to leave their liquids behind. NBC News Tom Costello reports on the developments of the last year — and what to look out for in 2007.
Travellers stand in line at the Delta Airlines counter at Logan Airport in Boston
Travelers stand in line at Boston's Logan Airport during the pre-Thanksgiving travel rush. Brian Snyder / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON — From merger mania to microjets to the introduction of new security rules, the past year saw major developments in the airline industry. And talking of flying, NASA announced that it's ready to set up shop on the Moon! But is it time to change up your frequent flier plan? Maybe not so fast...

The year that was: 2006

Merger and cost-cutting mania
2006 has been a back-from-the-brink year for the U.S. airline industry. After struggling with bankruptcy, this was the year that United, US Airways, Northwest and Delta began to turn it around. These so-called "legacy" carriers began emerging as stronger, more nimble carriers by cutting fares, pensions and employees. As of August, there were 403,000 airline employees; down 15 percent from 2002. 

U.S. Airways' marriage with America West has proved a success; Delta is scheduled to emerge from bankruptcy protection in 2007 — and the new U.S. Airways is already bidding to buy Delta. In addition, United Airlines and Continental are talking about a merger, while Air Tran is offering to buy Midwest Airlines for $290million in stock and cash.

No more liquids onboard
Fortunately, due to the diligence of British police, a plot to blow up several U.S. carriers over the Atlantic Ocean was thwarted in August. The suspects were allegedly planning to assemble liquid bombs while on board the aircraft. As a result, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) instituted an immediate ban on all carry-on liquids and gels.  

While the public took in all in stride, they also began checking more bags. By the Thanksgiving rush, the number of checked bags was up 20 percent. With more bags going through the system, there were more airline delays in September and October.

To the Space Station and beyond
2006 was a year of tremendous progress for NASA. Researchers announced they'd found evidence of water on Mars; the agency unveiled plans for a moon base in 2006; and mission managers managed to launch three space shuttle missions in the second half of the year. 

NASA is now well underway with its plan to finish building the $100 million International Space Station. While space enthusiasts and critics both question the value of the station, NASA has pledged to its international partners that, barring another shuttle disaster, the station will be finished. Then — to the moon! 

Micro-jets made major strides in 2006 and are getting ready to take to the skies — and they could change the way we travel. Eclipse Aviation is in the process of receiving FAA certification for the nation’s first Very Light Jet (VLJ), and already has orders for more than 2,500. At $1.5million, they are less expensive than a traditional Lear Jet, but also smaller. 

Able to fly at 35-40,000 feet and nearly as fast as a 737, aviation experts believe the VLJs will be used by a new breed of air taxi that will shuttle between the nation's smaller airports (or even a dirt strip in a corn field). 

The Double Decker takes flight
The Airbus A-380 has finally received both European and FAA flight certification. But at what cost? 

The 550-seat Jumbo-Jet is nearly two years behind schedule. Already, FedEx has canceled its order for 10 planes and Airbus says there could be more cancellations. 

The delays and cancellations have wiped away nearly $6 billion in forecast Airbus profits and put in jeopardy plans to build a plane that would compete with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. 

What to watch in 2007

Don’t change frequent flier programs just yet
Airline analysts have argued for years that there are too many airlines with too many seats operating in the United States. While the U.S. Airways/Delta deal seems unlikely to go forward, a United/Continental merger seems more likely. We don't know the details of the merger talks, but don't start re-aligning your airline miles just yet. A marriage isn't a marriage until you've signed the legal paperwork. And the Department of Justice will get the final say. 

‘Trusted Traveler’
Look for an expanded Trusted Traveler program in 2007.  The program, which has been operating in Orlando for about a year — and is about to roll out to New York's JFK airport, Cincinnati, San Jose and Indianapolis — allows allows pre-approved travelers to make their way through TSA checkpoints quickly.  But at nearly $100 per person each year, the program may have limited appeal, especially since it's not available nationwide.

Moon mission
While a moon mission is still at least 13 years away, the planning for the mission is already well underway. Look for new announcements this year on rocket, crew and lunar module specifics as the agency looks to get beyond Low Earth Orbit once again.

Not locusts, Very Light Jets
The nation’s first Very Light Jets (VLJs) are expected to take to the skies in the first few weeks of 2007. Critics say they will blacken the sky like a swarm of East Coast gnats, but the FAA isn't concerned, insisting there's room enough in the skies for everyone.

Airbus and Boeing duke it out
2007 will be the year that the A-380 finally flies fare-paying passengers, with Singapore Airlines getting the first planes. But has Airbus lost too much momentum and cash?  Next year will be crucial in its perennial dog fight with arch rival Boeing.