For business travelers, 2002 was memorable -- and most of the memories aren't happy ones.
That was to be expected when you combine enormous upheaval in the airport security system, the bankruptcy filings of two major airlines, and drastic changes in fares and frequent-flier programs.
So as the new year begins, many travelers wonder what trials 2003 may hold. If the United States goes to war with Iraq, will oil prices spike and further undermine the shaky health of many airlines? What other surprises do the airlines have in store as they grapple with deep losses? Could another major carrier be forced into Chapter 11?
"I've been traveling on business for more than 20 years and I've never seen so many ups and downs and so many incredible changes that we saw this year," said William T. Levine, a Washington-based aerospace consultant. "You can't help but wonder, what's next?"
Levine said the most startling event last year was watching US Airways and United Airlines file for protection from their creditors. As millions of travelers wondered whether their frequent-flier miles were safe, the airlines launched ad campaigns promising business as usual as they tried to cut costs and emerge from bankruptcy. US Airways hopes to emerge by March. United plans to emerge by June 2004, if it can agree with its unions on wage cuts.
As if the airlines needed more public relations problems in 2002, there were several incidents involving drunk crew members. Two America West pilots were arrested and taken off an aircraft last summer for trying to fly the plane from Miami to Phoenix while intoxicated. Less than a month later, a pilot for a Delta subsidiary, Atlantic Southwest, resigned amid allegations he showed up drunk for a flight from Wilmington, N.C., to Atlanta. Just last week, Delta suspended a pilot for showing up drunk for a 6 a.m. flight between Norfolk and Cincinnati.
For the airline industry's finances, last year could not have been much worse. Airline companies probably lost about $8 billion, after losing more than $7 billion in 2001. As a result, many carriers looked for ways to increase revenue or reduce costs. In other words: more fees.
Several airlines began charging travelers as much as $25 if they wanted to use paper tickets instead of electronic tickets. And until they reversed themselves two weeks ago, many of the major airlines decided to charge passengers $100 if they wanted to fly standby on flights on the same day as their originally scheduled flights.
What angered the most travelers happened in August, when US Airways began what became an industry standard by further restricting passengers who fly on discounted tickets. A passenger who fails to use a scheduled ticket or reschedule a flight before it takes off loses the value of that ticket. In the past, passengers could apply the price of the unused tickets to new purchases. Also, US Airways said it would not allow passengers flying on deeply discounted tickets to earn miles that would count towards elite status in its frequent-flier program. Those travelers also would no longer be allowed to fly standby.
But a week later, after protest from many travelers, US Airways backed off part of its plan. It allowed discount passengers to fly standby for a fee and to earn elite status. Discount-ticket holders who miss their flights and don't rebook before it takes off will still lose their money.
There were a few instances in 2002 when travelers' angst seemed to be heeded. After hearing complaints, the Transportation Security Administration eliminated several of what it called "stupid rules," focusing instead on the things that really improve security. Passengers no longer have to endure multiple queries about whether they have let their suitcases out of their sight. They are allowed to pass through security with cups of coffee or other beverages. Passengers are also allowed to carry tweezers, nail clippers, shaving razors and other such items in their carry-on luggage. The TSA is phasing out a second round of passenger screenings.
Another longtime source of pain for business travelers was having to pay as much as five times what leisure travelers pay for tickets. In November, American Airlines -- the world's largest carrier -- began testing a new fare structure from 23 airports, including Baltimore-Washington International. Last-minute walk-up fares, usually purchased by business travelers in these markets, were reduced about 40 percent.
American Airlines entered the East Coast shuttle market in the fall when it began hourly service between Reagan National Airport, New York's La Guardia and Boston's Logan International.
It was also a big year for low-cost carriers. JetBlue Airways, barely three years old, quickly became popular nationwide. Travelers raved about two of JetBlue's main attributes: fares as much as 70 percent lower than those of rivals, and satellite television at each seat. JetBlue flies out of Dulles International Airport to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Oakland and Long Beach, Calif.
Southwest Airlines, the only major carrier that did not cut back operations last year, began its first transcontinental nonstop, between BWI and Los Angeles. On Jan. 12, Southwest plans to add a flight between BWI and San Jose.
After a year like that, have you made any resolutions about how your travel habits will change in 2003? Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.