Forecasting Summer Travel

They've got game rooms, rocking chairs, art displays and free Wi-Fi.

Whether you're delayed, stranded overnight or passing through as planned, the air travel industry said today that it's ready for the summer travel season.

The bad news is you might need the extra amenities. The airline trade industry can't promise that last summer's horrendous on-time record will improve much, it can't do anything about summer storms and travel is likely to be more expensive.

"I think we're going to face a challenging summer this year," said James C. May, president and CEO of the airline trade group Air Transport Association.

Today, the air travel industry predicted that fewer passengers will travel through the nation's airports this summer than in the summer of 2007. The culprit is record-high jet fuel prices that continue to cripple the airline industry, forcing carriers to cut flights and jack up ticket prices to survive.

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Still, more than 211.5 million summer travelers are expected to pass through the airports between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to an outlook report released this morning by the air travel industry. That's about a 1 percent decrease from the 214.2 million travelers airports welcomed last summer.

Despite the slight reduction in the number of passengers, planes are expected to be 85 percent full.

Indeed, summer is notoriously the busiest travel time of the year, but there's no doubt the airlines are coming off a rough spring. With jet fuel approaching $170 per barrel, airlines are left struggling to remain financially sound, and as a result, have resorted to charging extra for services that used to be part of your ticket price.

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Many people have already suggested that the summer of 2008 will be the summer of the train.

Still, the industry is confident it will continue attracting nearly all of its customers and vows to do a better job this summer than last. The summer of 2007 was marred by excessive delays, baggage losses and stranded passengers. On Tuesday, the industry said each carrier now has a system in place to ensure passengers aren't stuck on runways for hours on end without food and water.

May predicted the industry could spend as much as $60 billion on jet fuel this year and said delays will cost about $10 billion this year as planes sit on the tarmac burning jet fuel. He said the industry is most challenged by New York, where 48 percent of all the delay minutes originate.

"It's a very expensive proposition," May said. "We hate delays. We want to do everything we can to cure them . And we think particularly in the summer months, it's going to be important."

Experts said today that airports and carriers are pulling out all the stops to make sure travel runs as smoothly as possible. Whether offering unusual amenities like fitness centers and DVD rentals or touting programs already in place to accommodate stranded passengers, airlines and airports are getting creative to make life easier for travelers.

If you're stuck on the tarmac in Atlanta, for instance, four 100-passenger buses are on hand to bring you from the plane to the concourse. A special set of air stairs awaits disabled passengers.

If you're stranded overnight in Austin, Texas, the city's Office of Emergency Management might call in the American Red Cross to bring travelers cots, blankets, food and drinks -- or even help passengers access 24-hour pharmacies.

The airport lobby said it hopes to go beyond keeping restaurants, gift shops and rental car agencies open late.

A recent survey completed by Airports Council International – North America also compiled services offered at 88 airports that represent nearly two-thirds of North American airport traffic.

Of those airports, almost half have children's play areas and more than 20 percent have game rooms or DVD rentals. Nearly three-quarters also have art displays, 45 percent have free Wi-Fi, 34 percent offer massages and four of the 88 airports had fitness centers. One quarter of those airports have rocking chairs.

To deal with crowds, the industry urged travelers today to plan ahead, arrive early and print boarding passes at home. Other tips: be prepared for new rules about extra fees, like baggage charges. Have liquids, gels and your identification ready to whip out of your carry on. Tag luggage inside and out with contact information and tear off baggage tags from previous trips to avoid confusion.

"We take our responsibility in these areas very, very seriously," said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International – North America. "Under the best of circumstances in the best of times, summer travel can be stressful for passengers."