Good news: The airlines are doing better. Bad news: The airlines are doing better.
This is good news for the airlines, of course; they are in recovery mode and seeing what looks like their most profitable year since the horrendous slump after the Sept. 11th terror attacks.
The bad news is strictly for us fliers: Recovery means higher airfares, especially if oil prices keep rising.
I think we can guess some of the resolutions the airlines will be coming up with for 2011, and despite what leisure travelers like Elaine Key of Virginia Beach, Va., want -- "Get rid of bag fees!" -- fees are here to stay. Other resolutions the airlines probably have in mind are equally scary; again, strictly from the passengers' point of view. Here's my take on airline New Year resolutions, plus the direction they should heading in but probably won't.
Look for my personal plea to the airlines, airports, the Transportation Security Administration, and Federal Aviation Administration at the very end of this column. Hint: I'm a simple man and my needs are few, but on-time planes are one of them.
What are airline execs planning? Picture them examining their balance sheets then saying, "I resolve to …"
No. 1: Resolution: To Continue the Fee Gold Mine
You saw this one coming, and why not: The airlines made billions off bag fees and other extras this year, and you'd have to be nuts to cut off that revenue stream. The airlines are many things but crazy is not one of them.
I won't waste anyone's time by suggesting a resolution calling for an end to or even a reduction of fees, since I expect airlines will continue to raise fees, albeit with some discounting on the increasingly popular concept of bundling fees. Still, maybe they could also simplify things for the anti-fee flier: How about create a new class of travel called "Bare Bones"?
These BB passengers would purchase airfare and that's all they'd get: transportation from Point A to B. No checked-bags, no food, no blankets, no Wi-Fi, no nothing. And this is all made crystal clear to them before their credit cards are dinged.
One bright spot on the airline fee scene: With Southwest ("Bags Fly Free") Airlines' takeover of AirTran, there will be one less carrier charging for checked-bags.
No. 2: Resolution: To Maintain Merger Mania
You know the litany of recent acquisitions by now: Delta Does Northwest, United Covers Continental, Southwest Takes AirTran. Good for the carriers (or so they devoutly hope) but less good for you and me, since it destroys competition, and that never bodes well for cheap airfares.
There may be more to come, too: We're already hearing rumblings about Delta and Virgin Atlantic, and surely American will continue to keep its eyes out for a dance partner. You can't stop mergers, since carriers might otherwise go out of business, so this is a tough one. An idea: Any would-be Richard Bransons out there who would like to start a new airline or two?
No. 3: Resolution: To Keep Sardine Can Cabins
I think the last time I had an empty seat next to me was during a red-eye flight, and no wonder: Packed planes = profitably, so don't look for changes here. The middle-seaters will continue to endure elbows in the ribcage, I'm afraid, but maybe the airlines could throw the cramped coach class a bone. A free snack for anyone who winds up in the worst seats? A minor freebie for those who check a bag (the better to declutter overstuffed overhead bins)? Might be worth a try.
Or here's a radical notion: a more welcoming attitude toward all passengers. No, a smile won't increase your legroom, but it might make it easier to bear. And fliers, remember your overworked cabin crews: Try smiling back.
No. 4: Resolution: To Introduce New Ad Adventures
I'd welcome more commercials, such as the spots from JetBlue and Southwest that tout their free bags; they are genuinely funny and make a real point that these airlines help you avoid checked-bag fees. What I'm less thrilled with is some of the more egregious examples of PR spin: think Spirit Airlines touting its "prereclined seats," which are seats that do not recline.
Yes, spin is spin, but enough is enough. How about a resolution calling on airline marketing departments to give us customers a little credit for brains?
While we on the subject of video, I do like that Virgin America cartoon-style safety demo. So do others -- it's gotten more than half a million hits on YouTube. I guess it just goes to show if you do something clever, even with a boring subject, people will pay attention. Airlines, are you listening?
No. 5: Resolution: To Worry Less about Customer Care
Some of you may be thinking: How could there possibly be less customer care? But first, let me say that I do not believe the airlines are purposely trying to drive their passengers crazy -- it just works out that way. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, word of bad customer service goes around the world instantly, so it's dangerous to treat customers shabbily. Or is it?
Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza once said of a disgruntled customer, "[He] will be back when we save him a penny," and he may be right; today's fliers are all about the bottom line when it comes to airfare. Toss in the notion that dollars-and-cents gains attributed to good customer care are notoriously hard to measure, and you have companies (and not just the airlines) that aren't losing too much sleep over customer service.
I think caring for customers does pay, and I think the airlines might do themselves a favor by studying the Southwest model; that airline has customer service figured out, and it makes money, too. Nice combination.
Here are a few resolutions I'd personally like to see:
For security: Resolve to keep us safe from external dangers and any potential dangers associated with protective measures (such as body scan machines).
For the airports: Resolve to improve your part in the arena of baggage handling.
For the airlines: Resolve that flights will depart on-time; that they will arrive when they're supposed to; and that passengers and their checked-bags will arrive at the same destination, together.
In other words, clean up your core product. Is that too much to ask?
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.