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Dark clouds and silver linings

If you’re like most air travelers, you can’t wait to say goodbye to the nightmare that was 2007. The question is, will 2008 bring smiles of relief or send us screaming for the exits?
Image: Airplanes line up for take-off on one of LaGuardia Airport's two runways
Airplanes line up for takeoff on one of LaGuardia Airport's two runways in New York in this file photo. Delays at LaGuardia, along with Newark and JFK, have a ripple-effect across the country. “Tame that three-headed beast and the numbers will improve nationwide,” columnist Rob Lovitt writes.Julie Jacobson / AP

If you’re like most air travelers, you can’t wait to say goodbye to the nightmare that was 2007. The question is, will 2008 bring smiles of relief or send us screaming for the exits?

There’s no easy answer to that, but here’s a look at several issues that will influence your reaction:

Fewer seats, fuller flights, higher fares
Blame it on softening demand or sky-high fuel prices, but the airlines’ recent recovery is shaky at best. And with the federal government estimating that oil prices will average $85 a barrel in 2008 — up 17 percent from this year and 50 percent from 2005 — they have good reason to be worried.

So, in response, legacy carriers will continue to divert planes to the more lucrative trans-Atlantic market (see Open Skies below); discounters will continue to curb their growth plans, and the decline in available seats will push load factors to new heights. “That’s how you end up getting stuck in the middle seat between two sumo wrestlers,” says NBC News' Travel Editor Peter Greenberg — and paying more for the privilege.

Dealing with delays
Despite the near-certainty of the occasional multi-hour meltdown, I believe the industry will improve its on-time performance in 2008. (I know, could it get any worse?) For one thing, high fuel prices will prompt the airlines to park planes; for another, the federal government is finally getting serious about taking on the Ghidorah that wreaks so much havoc on the system: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. Tame that three-headed beast and the numbers will improve nationwide.

Just last week, the government got the airline industry to agree to cap flights during peak hours at JFK and Newark starting March 15 (although they’ll still be able to add more during less-busy times). What’s next? “The government may eventually come through with some sort of congestion pricing,” suggests Jeff Miller, an attorney and travel consultant, “although the airlines will just pass those costs on to passengers.”

Frequent flier programs go pffft
Got mileage? Better use it. First, award seats got scarce; now, your frequent-flier miles will likely expire faster. Starting this month, both American and United will expunge mileage from accounts that have been inactive for 18 months (down from 36 months). In April, Alaska will downgrade the life of unused miles from three years to two.

Then there’s Delta, which has announced it will no longer guarantee award-seat availability on every flight — even to those willing to use double miles. “This gives cover to other airlines to do the same,” says Tim Winship, editor-at-large for Worse yet, he says, the Delta rule is retroactive: “All of a sudden, the miles you’ve already earned are devalued.”

Passenger rights revisited
The good news? A federal judge just threw out the airline industry’s lawsuit contesting New York’s first-in-the-nation passenger bill of rights. The bad news? The issue will continue to flare up this year because neither the airlines nor the federal government will step up and do the right thing on a national scale.

That said, there’s one scenario that could add fuel to the fire. If there’s a midwinter meltdown in New York, affected airlines could face fines of up to $1,000 per passenger. Whether they pay up or not, the resulting publicity will be a wake-up call that may prompt real action in 2009.

More international options
Ahhh, Paris (or London or Amsterdam) in the spring. Come March 30, the Open Skies agreement will allow any U.S. (or European) carrier to fly between any city-pairs in the U.S. and EU. Already the airlines have announced plans to fly a slew of new routes, including JFK–Barcelona (American), Houston–Heathrow (Continental) and Portland, Ore.–Amsterdam (Northwest).

But will the deal bring more competition and lower fares? No one really knows, but more code-sharing will likely mean more confusion when passengers find out they’re not flying on the carrier they thought they were. More to the point, says Miller, “If you’re on a Northwest code share with KLM, and you book the same flights through either carrier, you might get different fares.”

Merger mania revisited?
It’s the elephant in the terminal. Mergers are messy, expensive and frowned upon by government regulators due to antitrust concerns, yet everyone agrees there are simply too many carriers for them all to operate profitably. High oil prices and shaky finances only exacerbate the situation.

So consider the following scenario. If federal regulators approve the Northwest-backed buyout of Midwest Airlines (set to close in early 2008), it will jump-start merger talks among the majors. At this point, a Delta–Northwest or United–Continental deal seems more likely than the Delta–United arrangement bandied about last month.

Either way, it will get ugly, but when it’s over there will be fewer planes crowding the skies and taxiways, improved on-time performance and better service. Yes, we’ll pay more for it, but the price tag for doing nothing is even higher.