The Best of Air Travel in 2009

A look back at the things that went right with our airlines, airports this year.

Dec. 23, 2009 — -- It's always much easier (and more fun) to throw bricks than bouquets, but today I am going to be Mr. Nice Guy and talk about what worked in the airline industry this year.

Don't worry -- I'll save room for a few horror stories, too.

But first, a look at some of the things that "worked" this year; things the air travel industry can be proud of.

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Airline Fees

Have I gone mad? Not totally. I know that some of these loathsome fees went up this year, especially bag fees (mainly because we keep checking our bags and paying those darn fees), but did you know some fees actually dropped?

Like fees for transporting pets. Both United and Delta, for example, cut their rates for "carry-on animals" by a hefty $50 each way. Okay, maybe they only did that because Southwest began allowing pets in the cabin for the bargain-basement rate of $75 one-way, but a savings is a savings.

And don't forget, US Airways finally came to its senses and did away with those foolhardy fees for coffee, soda, and even water (I was flying US Airways the day they implemented these fees -- their gate agent apologized before boarding).

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Finally: The baby boy born on that Southwest flight earlier this month? Those lucky parents were charged no additional fees (but considering that the poor mother gave birth on the floor of a crowded aircraft, it certainly qualified as a "no frills" delivery).

Airline Survival

I am delighted that we have an airline industry at all these days, especially after 2008's dismal round of bankruptcies that saw the demise of ATA, Skybus, Aloha and more. In fact, back in January, BusinessWeek came right out and asked, "Which Airlines Will Disappear in 2009?"

The reporter was too smart to make any definitive predictions, but he did suggest that JetBlue, AirTran and US Airways could run into trouble. I'm happy to report that all three are still with us, and JetBlue and AirTran turned third quarter profits.

Cheap Fares

The airlines sure got this one right -- some of the fares this summer were absolutely astounding.

We saw the return of the $99 coast-to-coast flights, and almost too-good-to-be-true deals to Europe, like June's roundtrip flight from Philadelphia to Madrid offered for just $208 (including all taxes and fees). Heck, that was even cheaper than the miserly $235 roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

Did you get a chance to fly? Hope so, since I doubt we'll ever see fares like that again.

Excellence in the Air

When you think of excellence, you might as well picture Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the "Hero of the Hudson" (a nickname I understand he's not all that crazy about). And here are some things you may not know about him:

After landing his US Airways jet, he called his local library to apologize for leaving a book he borrowed onboard the sinking aircraft (naturally, it was a book about professional ethics); later, when "60 Minutes" and all those other shows were chasing him, he gave his first interview to -- not to Diane Sawyer, but to a local high school kid. Later still, he donated his pilot's cap so it could be auctioned off for charity.

Sleeping Pilots

Kind of makes you (almost) forget those Northwest pilots, who were too busy with their laptops to notice that they overshot their Minneapolis destination by some 150 miles (they are appealing their license suspension). I only wish we could forget the United pilot who showed up for work at Heathrow only to be arrested on suspicion of overindulging in alcohol.

Hey, Capt. Sully -- thanks again.

Bold Leaders

Ray LaHood doesn't run an airline, but the Secretary of Transportation is, to a degree, following in the footsteps of colorful visionaries like Southwest's Herb Kelleher and Virgin's Richard Branson. And by that I mean the DOT leader has airline passengers' backs, and isn't afraid to act.

LaHood recently cracked down on carriers that violated federal rules on reimbursing travelers for expenses for lost bags ("Travelers should not have to pay for toiletries or other necessities while they wait for baggage misplaced by airlines," said LaHood).

More recently, he decided not to wait around for congressional action on a passenger rights bill -- he issued a DOT rule that says a loaded plane can't sit on the tarmac forever – after three hours, passengers must be allowed off. Sure, there are some exceptions, but politicians have been debating this endlessly. LaHood decided to do something about it.

I like his style.

So, is air travel perfect? Hah! But sometimes it's worth remembering that a lot of good people are working very hard with less and less funds at their disposal, trying to get it right. They don't always succeed but they're trying. And that's a start.

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 offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.