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Air Travel

'Flying feels different': Here's how air travel has changed recently

Christopher Elliott
Special to ˽ýӳ

If you haven't flown in a while, fasten your seat belts. I've got good news – and bad news.

You've probably already heard the bad news because it travels faster than the speed of sound. Airfares are up. So are luggage fees. And we seem to have a problem with in-flight violence again.

But there's more to the story, and if you're an occasional air traveler, you'll want to get the big picture. You might be surprised by what you find.

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First, the bad news about air travel in 2024

Some of the changes have not been for the better. For example:

  • Airfares are climbing. Cheap pandemic airfares are history. Average domestic round-trip fares . But they were back up to $261 by the beginning of this year – and they continue to climb.
  • Checked-baggage fees are soaring. All of the major airlines have recently raised their baggage fees. On domestic flights, a checked bag may cost as much as $35 (more if you wait until the last minute or your bag is overweight).
  • Air rage is back. In-flight air rage hit record highs in 2021, mostly because of masking requirements. But – this time, a combination of fuller flights and a continuing decline of civility. We're on track to exceed 2020's unruly-passenger incidents.

But don't despair. The air travel experience is changing in small ways – and, potentially, in big ways.

Illustration of woman holding both arms in the air with a plane above her.

What's it like to fly now?

Let's start with the air travel experience itself. Flights are fuller and space is tighter than ever. In fact, if you're flying somewhere this spring or summer, you should congratulate yourself. You're probably part of the busiest year in the history of air travel.

"Air travel has rebounded," said Jason Block, CEO of . That puts a squeeze on regular passengers. If you've booked a no-frills economy ticket, you may face a higher risk of being bumped from your flight. So if you have a little extra money, Block suggests buying a more flexible ticket. You're still not bump-proof, but at least you'll move up the list.

Smile for the TSA. The passenger screening experience is different but not necessarily better. The Transportation Security Administration has new scanners that take your picture to verify your identity. New technology might allow you to keep all your belongings in your bag and speed up screening – "might" being the operative word.

"The process is more inconsistent than ever," said Andy Abramson, a frequent traveler and a communications consultant from Las Vegas. "Procedures change from airport to airport. In some cases, all you need is your boarding pass. In others, you need your ID, and in others, nothing but your facial scan."

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Speaking of technology, many air travelers have raved about new onboard Wi-Fi capabilities. Airlines like Air New Zealand, Emirates and JetBlue include the price of Wi-Fi in their tickets, and the connections have just gotten better since the pandemic.

Your face is your boarding pass. The TSA isn't the only one using facial scans. Some U.S. airlines have started using facial scans instead of boarding passes. It's a bit of an adjustment for passengers.

"I stood awkwardly in front of a camera, feeling like a contestant in a dystopian game show," said Chris McGuire, a real estate broker from Birmingham, Ala.

A few months ago, Frankfurt became the first airport in Europe to fully adopt facial recognition. Other airports, including Tokyo and Dubai, also have face-scanning technology. If you haven't flown in a while, you may not have to fumble for your boarding pass before you get on the plane.

I've used face-scanning technology on many occasions, and it usually works, but it can be slow. Getting through customs in Santiago, Chile, took a while, and the agent kept apologizing for the technology. So don't forget to pack your patience.

No more ticket change fees. Airline ticket change fees disappeared during the pandemic on U.S. airlines. So if you have to change your flight, you won't have to pay a $250 fee on top of any fare difference.

"That's one of the most significant changes," said frequent air traveler Bob Bacheler, managing director of , a medical transport service. "Airlines introduced more flexible booking and cancellation policies, allowing passengers to change or cancel flights without heavy penalties."

Bacheler believes the fees will return eventually, and he's right. If they do, airlines will call them something else – maybe a "convenience" fee?

You may board your flight differently. "Some airlines are implementing new boarding procedures," said Andy Palacios, vice president of growth and strategic partnerships for . The most significant is United Airlines, which last fall began boarding economy passengers with window seats before those with middle and aisle seats.

Palacios recommends avoiding the general boarding mayhem by getting a credit card or earning elite status. Anything that gets you into the first boarding group can save you from having to gate-check your carry-on or just getting stuck in a crowd.

You have new rights, too. If something goes wrong on your flight, you may find that your airline will do more for you. That's because the Department of Transportation, which regulates airlines, has been applying steady pressure on domestic airlines to improve customer service. (After all, taxpayers bailed out the airlines during the pandemic.)

Airlines now offer guaranteed meals, accommodations and ground transportation to and from a hotel when they're at fault for a cancellation. (You can find out about all your rights on the Transportation Department's website.)

The federal government is working on carving out more rights for air travelers, dealing with everything from more straightforward and honest pricing to minimum seat size. But it's a work in progress.

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Flying 'feels different' now

Passengers say it feels as if something has shifted in air travel.

"Flying feels different," said Robert Khachatryan, a frequent flyer and founder of a freight forwarding service in La Crescenta, Calif.

He's correct. It's not just that customers have a few new rights or that the technology is getting an upgrade – or even that boarding is a little different.

There's a sense that something big lies just ahead. With people like Elon Musk teasing a Tesla that can fly and personal flying vehicles making headlines almost every day, there's a feeling that flying is about to evolve in a significant way.

Air travelers have become disenchanted with commercial air travel, with its high fares, fees, long lines and terrible customer service. And the relief may not come from new rules to protect the rights of air travelers but from a fundamental change in the way we fly.

So if flying feels different to you now, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet.

This is the first of a two-part series on the future of air travel. Next week: Flying cars. Yeah, we're going to go there.

is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes, a travel newsletter, and the, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you canor email him atchris@elliott.org.

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