Airport 2010: Higher Airfares, More Fees, Debate on Cell Phones

I admit it. At times I am clairvoyant.

Like a year ago, in this column, when I predicted that 2009 would be "the Year of the Airline Ticket Sale" (with appropriate hedging and waffling -- uh -- just in case).

However, I bow to the venerable Chinese calendar for the best air travel prediction ever -- made back in 2008 -- which they dubbed, appropriately, the "Year of the Rat." It was a rodent-like year, all right, one passengers remember as the "Year of Airline Fees and High Fuel Prices."

And now it's 2010 -- the "Year of the Tiger." Keeping that in mind, let me pull out the crystal ball again and give you my top prediction: yes, there will be some ferociously great airfare sales -- but, overall, airline ticket prices will be higher -- possibly much higher.

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Airfare Prices on the Rise

If an airline ticket could look in a mirror, its reflected price would mimic a few key indicators: competition, fuel, seat supply and demand.

None of which, I'm afraid, is trending in the air travel consumer's favor.

The airfares of 2009 were amazing. Roundtrip to Europe for under $300 doesn't sound remotely possible, but it was. We are coming off record lows, domestically and on many international flights -- the lowest prices in decades, in some cases -- so airfares really don't have anywhere to go but up.

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What's more, the airlines have been systematically cutting seats by reducing schedule frequency and dumping unprofitable routes -- seats they couldn't fill unless they priced them at or below cost. So those discounts are gone.

Another grim omen on the horizon: the price of oil. This week it crossed the $80-a-barrel threshold, which was just about its price when airlines started adding those pesky fuel surcharges to their ticket prices -- surcharges that hit up to $100 on roundtrip domestic flights back in May 2008.

Oh, and don't forget: the airlines have already added special surcharges to "peak travel days" including most of "spring break." Why? Because they can. And they need and want to make some money.

New Kind of Airfare Sale

But I did say there would be sales, and there will be -- though some won't look like the sales of yore. By that I mean you can look for more lightning sales lasting just a single day or two: we saw a smattering of those in the latter part of 2009, powered in part by social media like Twitter and Facebook -- because that's where the airfares of the future will be advertised.

And watch for more of those "all-you-can-eat" deals. By that I mean a revival of JetBlue's very successful "all-you-can-fly" pass, which was launched back in August and quickly sold out (pass holders could take as many JetBlue flights as they liked in a 30 day period for just $599). There was also United's ongoing bag fee deal – pay $249 and you and your family can check two bags each on all the flights you want for a year. We'll see more of this.

Security Toughens Up

You may think I've morphed into Captain Obvious with this prediction, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it. The Christmas Day incident was an out-and-out embarrassment to U.S. security forces, and they will not stand for a repeat. For passengers, that means getting to the airport earlier than ever to deal with the longer lines at security -- and then there will be a gradual slackening off -- until the next incident, when it starts all over again. Me, a cynic? Nope. Just a realist.

New, More Creative Fees

Now, what would an airline prediction column be without a mention of new fees? A waste of time, I'd say. Anyway, look for at least two new fees in 2010.

A fee for carry-on bags? Maybe. A fee for cell phone use? Probably not -- though I expect 2010 will be the year of the great "cells-on-planes" debate -- followed in 2011 by regulations allowing cell phones in the air...with accompanying fees, of course. Don't yell at me -- I only make predictions, not policy.

Speedier D.C. Decisions

Who said this? "Airline passengers have rights." You might be surprised to learn it was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Or maybe not. After all, politicians are masters of the well-chosen sound bite. But LaHood walks the walk, too: he didn't wait around for a passenger bill of rights to limp through Congress, he unilaterally decided that planes cannot linger on the tarmac for more than three hours; after that, the pilots have to let the passengers off.

That created quite a fan club for LaHood, whose members include a blogger who referred to him as "A God Among Transportation Secretaries."

Now just imagine what he could do with our ancient and anachronistic air traffic control system! I'm ready if you are, Ray.

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, 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.