5 Air Travel Predictions for 2012

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The burning air travel questions of the coming year: Will fees rise? Will our tickets cost more? Will Alec Baldwin disrupt our flight?

And what about finding true love or lust on a plane? See number four. Now, normally, my prognostication skills don't extend to all areas of modern life - for instance, I did not see the Kardashian divorce coming - but I do know air travel and have examined trends and data over the past several years so I have some answers. Now let's get started.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Here are the top five air travel predictions of 2012.

1.
More mergers? Could happen.

Folks holding tickets for American Airlines, not to mention those holding thousands of frequent flyer miles, got a scare back in November when the airline abruptly announced its bankruptcy. A scare is all it was, though.

In fact, bankruptcy is a well-worn path for large U.S. carriers. As Southwest CEO Gary Kelly recently noted, many legacy airlines effectively emerged from bankruptcy in great shape as "giant, lower-cost airlines [that are] much more formidable competition than their predecessors."

American has 18 months to emerge from Chapter 11 and by all accounts it probably should merge with another airline. Yet most of the musical chairs are already accounted for - think Delta/Northwest, United/Continental - so there are not many choices. US Airways might be a willing partner for AA but culture clash could spell doom. I'm on the fence on this one.

2.
Will more of us fly? Signs point to 'yes'.

A recent online survey by travel website Travel Ticker confirmed what I've seen from my vast storehouse of data: An increasing number of people say they'll do more leisure traveling in the coming year, and even more say they'll fly if they can find good deals in 2012 (note: we've been seeing an awful lot of airfare sales in the past couple of weeks).

Empty middle seats are so last decade. Today the airlines are all about "contract, merge, and survive" as opposed to the old model of "expand at any cost." Sure, we can dream of the good old days when an arm rest didn't have a body leaning on it, but that's all it is, a dream.

3.
Will the cost of airline tickets go up? Bet on it.

You may be excused for thinking flying is only for the rich. After all, the airlines attempted to raise prices 22 times in 2011 (and nine of those attempts were successful). However, there is a bronze lining in that the airlines still have to fill those middle seats, so they will keep tossing out occasional discounts though they may be fewer and farther between.

If you shop smart - if you buy your tickets on Tuesday and are willing to flying midweek instead of Friday or Sunday - you can still game the airfare pricing system and come out a winner. At least, most of the time.

4.
Will I still pay fees? Yes. Even, maybe, for love.

2012 will be the year of 'Fees 4.0' but to review: Fees 1.0 began in 2008 when we began paying for bags in the first place. As one airline exec explained, "You pay $12 for a hot dog at Wrigley, so why not a fee for a bag?" Trouble is, hotdogs at Wrigley weren't free five years ago. Plus, they taste good. Bag fees, as we all know, are nearly indigestible.

And forget all those reports about proposed legislation to do away with bag fees. Every time a senator is charged a bag fee, they make a ruckus (especially during an election cycle). The legislation won't go anywhere because those billions of dollars in fee revenue are often the only thing keeping airlines above water what with those sometimes stratospheric fuel prices.

Fees 2.0 saw airlines slapping on a sushi menu-worth of charges for all sorts of frills such as food and early boarding. For consumers, it got harder and harder to compare the total cost of a ticket from one airline to another. Fees 3.0 was the bundling of fees we see now, such as early boarding plus checked-bag plus preferred seat.

Fees 4.0 will mean higher fees (especially if oil takes another precipitous hike), plus more bundling of extras we might not have wanted to purchase separately but may succumb to after seeing them continuously discounted from pay-point to pay-point via email, on our smartphones, at the airport kiosk or even on our airplane seat back screens.

What's love got to do with it? We may find out once KLM gets its "choose your seatmate via Facebook" plan underway. Perhaps flyers will use it to choose neighbors based on looks or hotness quotient or simply to find a quiet, easygoing seatmate (perhaps the anti-Alec Baldwin). Would you pay for this? I'm betting many will; take another look at that Seinfeld episode where Elaine is stuck in a middle seat whispering, "Help me").

5.
Acceptance of air travel and all its hassles? We're getting there.

With apologies to Greyhound, we are coming to accept that flying today is like traveling by bus with few frills and even fewer fun times. Complaints about airport security are down, and I'm getting fewer angry emails about unfair bag fees. We may not like it but we're getting used to it, and face it - air travel is still the best way of getting from Point A to Point B.

Hope all your flights in 2012 are smooth and hassle-free.

Related links:

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly Warns Cost Too High

Great, Recent Deals

Poll: Consumers Will Travel More In 2012

22nd Domestic Airfare Hike Attempt of 2011 Fails

When to Buy Airline Tickets and Other Advice

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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