For Jay Caulk, a travel agent in Pompano Beach, Fla., the Thanksgiving travel season is shaping up like one of those hold-your-breath scenes in the movies where someone inevitably says, “It’s quiet out there ... too quiet.”
“Usually by now, we have people breaking down the doors to get their air tickets, but I haven’t seen anybody,” said Caulk. “It’s been blank, really blank.”
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, he’s not the only one wondering what that blank portends for the holiday travel season. From corporate mergers to screening procedures, much has changed since last year and fliers who haven’t been paying attention run the risk of getting shut out.
The high cost of procrastination
Earlier this month, the Airline Transport Association of America (ATA), the trade group for the U.S. airline industry, forecasted that 23.2 million people would fly over the 12-day period between Friday, Nov. 18 and Tuesday, Nov. 29. That represents a 2 percent decline from last year and a 12 percent drop from the peak of 26.2 million set in 2006.
The reasons range from the micro- to the macro-economic. High airfares are clearly giving people pause — according to Priceline.com, Thanksgiving fares averaged $407 on Nov. 1, up 6 percent from the already high fares of 2010 — at the same time that high unemployment and declining household worth have squeezed people’s discretionary dollars.
The result is that many potential travelers are delaying their purchases or procrastinating in the hopes of last-minute deals. The problem, says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, is that we’ve already passed the 21-day advance-purchase mark, so the cheapest fares are already gone.
“The problem with trying to out-game the airlines this year is that they own Park Place,” said Seaney. “People who procrastinate do so to their own detriment this year.”
Marie Lotode Chandra, founder of ViaHerWorld.com, a website for women business travelers, can relate. Hoping to fly from New York to the Caribbean over Thanksgiving, she and her husband were unable to book flights in advance due to uncertainties in their work schedules. When she finally tried earlier this month, she got quite the surprise.
“Flights to Puerto Rico or Jamaica that would usually be $300–$400 are now $800–$1,000,” she told msnbc.com. “That’s ridiculous; for that, I can usually fly to France.”
Fewer airlines, fewer options, higher fares
It doesn’t take an advanced degree in yield management to understand why airfares are rising even as fewer people are flying. Prompted by the lessons of the past and stubbornly high fuel prices, the airlines have turned to mergers, schedule cuts and smaller planes to keep the number of seats in line with demand.
Consider capacity cuts. Last year, the top 10 U.S. carriers flew almost 12.4 million seats on 120,000 flights between Nov. 24 and Nov. 29. During the comparable period this year, they are scheduled to fly less than 12 million seats on less than 116,000 flights. That’s a 3 percent drop in seats and a 4 percent drop in flights (all figures from OAG, a UBM Aviation brand).
Not surprisingly, those declines are not distributed equally across the nation’s route system -- second-tier airports are seeing some of the largest cuts. Among the hardest hit, according to OAG: Milwaukee (scheduled flights down 26 percent November 2011 vs. 2010), Memphis (down 21 percent) and Cincinnati (down 18 percent).
Cincinnati, in fact, could be the poster child for large-scale capacity cuts, not to mention a cautionary tale about the impact of mergers. In 2007, when the city was still a hub for Delta, the local airport handled 153,000 departures, according to Department of Transportation (DOT) figures. Last year, two years after the merger between Delta and Northwest closed, it handled less than 73,000.
“It never happens overnight,” said Tom Reich, president of aviation consulting firm Air Service Partners LLC. “It’s always a few flights here, a few flights there. You do that for a few years in a row and suddenly a bustling hub turns into virtually nothing.”
Other airports are likely to feel similar effects in the coming months. Earlier this year, Delta announced it would cut 25 percent of its current service from Memphis, a former Northwest hub, in 2011. And while it’s too early to tell what impact the Continental/United merger will have on routes and schedules, Cleveland could be in the crosshairs, as well.
“Back when Continental was just Continental, Cleveland was their reliever valve in the Northeast,” said Reich. “With the merger, it’s equidistant from Washington-Dulles and Chicago-O’Hare so you’ve got double redundancy.”
Whether that means more cuts won’t be known until the two airlines are completely integrated sometime next year. (The same is true regarding any major changes resulting from Southwest’s purchase of AirTran earlier this year.) But specific decisions aside, history suggests the prognosis is for fewer options and higher fares.
Chris Gray, for one, has experienced that scenario firsthand. As an executive with a roller coaster company, he’s been flying from Harrisburg, Penn., to Cincinnati for the holidays for almost a decade. “At one time, there were eight to 10 flights to Cincinnati out of Harrisburg; now it’s down to, like, four.”
And the fare? “Every year, they climb 10 to 15 percent,” he told msnbc.com. “Nine years ago, I paid around $150; this year, it was $375. As a single person, it’s still easy for me to jump on a plane and go but for two or more people, it’s probably cheaper to just drive the nine hours.”
A smoother experience at security?
Given the prognosis for full planes and high fares, there would seem to be little for fliers to smile about during their Thanksgiving travels. And yet, there’s potentially good news from the most unlikely of sources: After years of increasingly frustrating, progressively more invasive screening procedures, there are indications that airport security and common sense don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“We’ve had a relatively quiet period for a while,” said aviation-safety expert Peter Goelz, senior vice president with O’Neill and Associates and a former director of the National Transportation Safety Board. “That’s taken TSA out of the glare of the public spotlight so they can move forward on stuff they might not have otherwise.”
For holiday travelers, the most pertinent effort will likely be TSA’s decision to modify screening procedures for children after generating universal outrage over several incidents of pat-downs of preteens, toddlers and, in at least one case, an 8-month-old baby.
Under the new guidelines, children 12 years old and younger will be allowed to keep their shoes on and may be allowed to pass through scanning machines multiple times to resolve anomalies. According to TSA, the new guidelines will reduce, although not completely eliminate, the need for a subsequent pat-down.
Travelers may also be relieved to know that TSA is continuing to install upgraded software in its full-body screening machines in an effort to provide more passenger privacy. Unlike the first-generation software, which provided highly revealing, passenger-specific images — digital strip-searches to critics — the new software displays a generic outline and highlights any concealed items.
According to TSA spokesman Greg Soule, approximately 260 of the agency’s more than 510 machines feature the less-revealing software: “The millimeter-wave machines have received the upgrade and we are now testing the upgrade for our backscatter machines.”
According to Soule, the machines should speed up screening since the displays are on the machines themselves and visible to both TSA agents and passengers. That will eliminate the need for the radio communication required when images are displayed in a separate room and will likely alleviate some, though not all, travelers’ concerns over disturbingly graphic images of their bodies.
“This addresses privacy concerns and also adds a level of transparency where the passenger now sees exactly what the officer sees,” said Soule. “It’s a more efficient process.”
Efficiency is also behind TSA’s PreCheck program, which gives select passengers access to expedited security after they’ve provided background information to the agency prior to traveling. Unfortunately, most Thanksgiving travelers probably won’t see much benefit as it’s only available to a fraction of the traveling public, mostly elite members of Delta and American’s mileage plans and those already enrolled in trusted traveler programs managed by Customs and Border Protection.
Still, it’s a good step toward TSA’s goal of a more risk-based, intelligence-driven approach to airport security. The agency is now working toward expanding the pilot program to include other airlines, such as United, Southwest and JetBlue, and additional, as-yet-unannounced airports.
In the meantime, the new initiatives are indications that TSA is trying to move toward a system based on common sense and away from one that invades people’s privacy, treats all travelers as potential terrorists and alienates large swaths of the traveling public.
“They still have a problem with consistency from one airport to another,” said Goelz. “At some airports, you have to take off your belt, at some you don’t, but that should be the least of your worries.”