WASHINGTON — While some areas of the aviation industry are moving at the speed of light, others are tied up in more earthly delays. See my list of "What to watch in 2007" and how things really turned out.
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.
As we expected, the Delta/US Airways deal fell through. Delta didn't want to play. There was speculation later in the year that Delta and United Airlines were talking about a merger but Delta firmly denied the story, which was probably started by a Wall Street hedge fund. Airline industry analysts continue to say the industry needs some consolidation. They argue there are too many seats, which keeps ticket prices low. But with load factors now near 90 percent for most flights, many people find that argument hard to believe.
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 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.
Sure enough, Trusted Traveler did expand in 2007, largely through the "Clear" program - a private program that offers frequent, pre-screened travelers the chance to skip regular TSA lines and go through an express security lane. Now, many of the biggest airports in the country have signed up for the "Clear" lanes. Also, the TSA is taking on more of the security background checks for airport employees. That job had belonged to the FAA, but as of January it will fall under the TSA's jurisdiction.
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.
More troubles for the space shuttle program in 2007. They'd hoped to launch four missions, and got three off on schedule. But the December mission to the International Space Station was postponed after a pesky problem with a fuel sensor popped up again. NASA hopes to launch in early January and insists a February launch will not be impacted. Still, NASA is now under the gun to finish the space station assembly missions before the shuttle fleet faces mandatory retirement in late 2010. NASA's eyes are very much focused on its next mission — to the moon! And in 2007, it announced the rockets and modules that will take astronauts there; the Ares rocket and Orion crew vehicle look like bigger versions of the systems used during the Apollo missions.
NASA now says the first mission to the space station using the Orion rocket will occur in March of 2015 with the first moon mission by 2020. NASA needs Congress to continue funding the president's stated goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, but there is concern within NASA that Congress' spending priorities might change. NASA's budget currently represents 6/10ths of 1 percent of the total federal budget.
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.
The VLJs started flying in 2007. An Air Taxi service in Ft. Lauderdale was the first to fully embrace them — offering jet service, point-to-point, across Florida. They fly below normal commercial aircraft fly and generally fly when the customer wants to fly. Could they be the solution to cramped airports and airspace? Stay tuned!
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 dogfight with archrival Boeing.
It was a mixed year for both Boeing and Airbus. The giant A-380 double-decker made its first trans-Atlantic flights this year, generally to rave reviews. I myself was on one of the flights out of New York's JFK airport.
It is much larger than a 747, with full rows on both the upper and lower decks. And it is quieter than a 747 or 777. However, Airbus is still way over budget and way behind on delivering all of the A380s that it has already promised. A senior Airbus executive admitted to me that some of the problems stem from the plane components being manufactured in different countries, and then assembled in France. This exec told me that German and French engineers were using incompatible systems and when they tried to put the airplane pieces together, they literally did not fit! Talk about a costly mistake!
Meanwhile, Boeing ran into trouble with its new 787 Dreamliner. After a glitzy rollout ceremony in Everett, Washington, this summer, problems with suppliers and a parts shortage has pushed back the first delivery until the end of 2008. Boeing will have to quickly ramp up production since the company has promised to deliver 109 planes to its customers by the end of 2009.
Tom Costello is an NBC News correspondent based in Washington, D.C. Click here to see his predictions for 2008.