Last week, I covered some of the airline industry's most outrageous occurrences of the year, and it was very tough to limit myself to just 10 items.
But for those of you who think the airlines did nothing right in 2008, that's not so. Sure, there were plenty of bad fees ($2 Coke, anyone?), but the airlines did impose one fee that brought a smile to a lot of faces. Plus, we saw altruism, punctuality and (seemingly) fewer passengers getting kicked off planes for bad behavior.
So settle back and peruse my list of what went right this year. There is some good stuff here, and the airlines have a right to be proud of all of it.
The Airline Industry 'Best' List
Airlines: Alive and Kicking I think it's a testament to its leadership that we still have an airline industry at all. If you think that's extreme, consider the airlines we lost last spring (ATA, Aloha, Maxjet and more) and think about the two major crises of the year: soaring oil prices and the ongoing economic meltdown. It took incredible discipline to survive all this, along with seat cuts, creative pricing and mergers. Now let's just hope the airlines keep "managing smart."
Stop the Presses: Airline Execs Take Pay Cuts Some airline executives -- not all, but some -- took pay cuts earlier this year, partly because they wanted to set an example in tough times and partly because they had to lay off employees. To some, this was a meaningless, symbolic gesture. Still, if the Big Three automakers had made such symbolic gestures from the start (which they ultimately did, but rather late in the game) their pleas for a bailout might have received a warmer reception.
Wi-Fi in the Wild Blue Yonder Road warriors rejoiced as "lap-topping" on flights became easier, thanks to Wi-Fi enhanced longer haul jets -- and so did everyone else forced to endure another stale airline movie (anyone for "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2"?) Even better, unlike some overseas carriers, the United States still says no to cell phones on planes.
U.S./Europe Open Skies Pact Opened Eyes It began with a straight-out-of-the-Wild-West gold rush for Heathrow as airlines fought for the expected riches of newly relaxed trans-Atlantic traffic rules. Unfortunately, the high price of oil kept most airlines from getting the most out of Open Skies. Watch for this to change in 2009. Low-cost carrier Ryanair, for one, says it plans to dive in and offer Europe-to-U.S. fares for less than $20. Yes, you read that right.
Safety First More than anything else, this is what U.S. airlines have done right: maintainined a superb safety record for the year, with no fatalities. Yes, there were problems, the most recent being the jet that slid off the runway in Denver last weekend, and oddities like the pilot who accidentally fired a gun in the cockpit and those two pilots who overshot their airport by 15 miles because they'd fallen asleep. But mostly, it was a good year for safety. Let it continue.
Savvy Southwest When American began charging for a first checked bag, the stampede was on. But Southwest Airlines remained aloof, and in short order built an advertising campaign around its disdain for fees (you can see one of its amusing TV ads here) It also proved to be King of Oil Price Hedging, though that's less useful now, since oil prices have taken a dive. What remains, though, is a matchless reputation for service. Yes, this low-cost carrier routinely wins top honors from passengers, even the ones who usually fly first class.
Fewer Fliers Behaving Badly Maybe it only seems this way, but passengers appeared to be treating each other -- and flight crews -- with more civility this year. There was no revolt when passengers were stuck in a plane on the tarmac for nine hours earlier this month (though there might have been had I been onboard), and no one got kicked off a plane for wearing a too-revealing outfit. After a year of pummeling, are fliers becoming unflappable? It would seem so. I like it.
TSA is Doing OK Maybe "OK" doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement to you, but it is to me. Look, any system that involves long lines and shoe-removal will never be considered great, but I give the feds kudos for speeding up the lines, promoting security-friendly laptop bags and working on eventual solutions to the indignity of taking off one's footwear. Plus, they proved they had a sense of humor when confronted by an artist who placed a piece of metal in a bag engraved with the words "nothing to see here." The TSA's message in return: "Don't do this."
Punctual Airlines Yes, there are fewer flights and fewer seats, but the airlines have substantially improved their on-time stats over the course of this year, as well as the number of "mishandled bags." And I'd like to give a special thumbs up to US Airways, for making an incredible comeback from perennial loser to genuine contender in these statistical contests. Some problems are solvable, and US Airways' management proves that day by day.
Fees the Airlines Didn't Impose We really dodged a bullet. There were predictions that oil would hit $200 a barrel this summer and fees would multiply -- but it never happened, thank goodness. Otherwise, just imagine some of the new tariffs the airlines might have imposed -- perhaps, pay by the pound (our own weight), or we might be scrambling for coins to gain entry to the restrooms. Count your blessings.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.