Talking turkey: Thanksgiving air travel could soar

The Thanksgiving travel season promises to be one of the busiest ever for fliers, and I’m not talking about turkeys.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects more than 25 million people to travel through airports across the country this Thanksgiving season (Nov. 16 through Nov. 26). That’s nearly a 7 percent increase from 2017, making the holiday season one of TSA’s busiest on record.

Last year, the TSA noticed a shift in Thanksgiving air travel patterns it expects to continue this year: The big travel crush starts the Friday before Thanksgiving, instead of one day before the holiday.

Still, the busiest travel days are expected be the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward when people are returning home.

If this Thanksgiving might log record travel numbers, should we expect Christmas travel to do the same?

Most outlooks for the December holidays aren’t out yet, but it’s a good bet. In its 2018 Holiday Outlook report, PricewaterhouseCoopers expects more than a third (35 percent) of consumers to travel for the winter holidays. That figure is even higher for younger people: 52 percent for older millennials (age 32-36), 46 percent for young millennials (age 23-26) and 40 percent for Generation Z (people age 17-22).

Overall, travel volume to and within the United States has been growing each year for nearly 10 straight years, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

And the winter holidays always have been busy times of year for travel as children come home on college break and other family members gather from afar.

Here are some quick holiday air travel tips:

  • Plan to arrive at the airport early. That means two hours before the departure of a flight within the United States and three hours before an international flight. Allow extra time for traffic congestion, parking, returning a rental car or checking luggage.
  • Check this list from the TSA of items you can and cannot carry through an airport or onto an airplane.
  • Be prepared to move quickly through airport security. Have your identification and boarding pass ready. Remember to remove from your carry-on bag any electronic devices larger than a cell phone and the quart-size plastic bag containing liquids and gels in 3.4-ounce containers or smaller (unless you have TSA PreCheck).
  • Travel light. The less luggage you have, the easier it will be to move around. It could cost you less since many airlines have raised their checked baggage fee.
  • Dress light. You must remove shoes, coats or sweaters and empty your pockets at airport security checkpoints. You also may need to remove watches and jewelry, if you’re wearing any.
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American and Zoës Kitchen team up to spice up airline food

Airline food –at least ay American Airlines — just got a little better thanks to a collaboration with Zoës Kitchen on a new inflight menu.

Starting Dec. 1, main cabin passengers on most U.S. flights longer than three hours will be able to but these new healthy food items.

If you’re not familiar with Zoës, the fast casual restaurant chain offers healthy Mediterranean fare inspired by family recipes and made from scratch. Getting into the whole Mediterranean, Blue Zone lifestyle, Zoës even has a “life blog,” with posts about healthy eating and fitness.

A Greek-American friend of mine swears by Zoës’ seasoning, “Spice of Life.”

Founded in 1995 and based in Plano, Texas, Zoës operates over 260 restaurants in 20 states. (Cava Group Inc. is buying Zoës.) So, Fort Worth, Texas-based American basically teamed up with a neighbor.

Janelle Anderson, vice president of global marketing for American Airlines, said customers have asked for “lighter, tasty food.”

American and Zoës head chef Antonio Iocchi designed the new menu with some items American Zoës head chef Antonio Iocchi designed a menu with some items exclusive to the airline and some signature dishes from Zoës restaurants, such as just for the airline and some signature dishes from Zoës restaurants, such as:

* Breakfast sandwich: Turkey bacon, egg slices, tomato and Calabrian pepper aioli topped with baby arugula on a waffle brioche bun

* Continental breakfast box: Belgian waffle with hazelnut spread and fresh berries

* Hummus duo: Two types of hummus — traditional and basil pesto flavor — topped with Kalamata olives, carrot, cucumber and pita bread

* The Grüben sandwich: Sliced turkey, Manchego cheese, Mediterranean slaw and feta spread layered on marble wheat bread and served with a chocolate chip cookie

* Chicken wrap: Grilled chicken with mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, arugula and artichokes and served a chocolate chip cookie

Throughout 2019, American and Zoës plan to introduce more food items in the domestic main and first class cabins. American said it still will continue to offer its breakfast platter and fruit-and-cheese plate.

American Airlines loosens its carry-on policy for Basic Economy passengers

Starting Wednesday, American Airlines flights might be more packed because it will let Basic Economy passengers carry more bags aboard a plane.

That’s right, the world’s largest airline is changing its carry-on baggage policy as of Sept. 5 for those no-frills travelers. They’ll be able to take one personal item and one carry-on bag on to a plane.

The previous policy let Basic Economy travelers bring aboard just one personal item that fit under the seat. Those passengers could not also bring a carry-on bag to store in an overhead bin.

Why? The world’s largest airline said the move will make it “more competitive with airlines that include a carry-on bag in their lowest fares.” American announced the change in late July.

The airline launched the Basic Economy fare in February 2017 to offer travelers a less expensive flying option.  American president Robert Isom said in a January 2017 statement that the new fare “gives American the ability to compete more effectively with the growing number of ultra low-cost carriers.”

All of the nation’s three big legacy carriers — American, United and Delta — launched no-frill fares in the last several years to compete better against lower-fare airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit.

In addition to carry-on restrictions, American’s Basic Economy fare carries other restrictions, such as no advance seat selection, no cancellations and a $25 gate fee for passengers who must check carry-on luggage at the gate.

American also plans to expand its Basic Economy airfares to certain Europe flights  starting in April 2019. All of those main cabin passengers will be allowed one personal item and one larger carry-on, but American will charge a new fee for the first checked bag to trans-Atlantic Basic Economy passengers.

What do airline passengers want the most? Wi-fi service

The demand for wi-fi service on flights is so strong that many passengers are even willing to sacrifice alcoholic drinks and meals, according to a new survey.

More than three quarters of those surveyed (78 percent) think wi-fi is “fundamental” to daily life and more than half (55 percent) say the service is crucial, according to the fourth annual global Inflight Connectivity Survey by London-based global mobile services provider Inmarsat. But high-paying customers, parents and younger passengers are among those most likely to use inflight wi-fi service.

“Whether it’s used for sending that important work email, entertaining the children or even connecting with fellow passengers, staying online is becoming a crucial part of the inflight experience for today’s airline passengers,” Philip Balaam, president of Inmarsat Aviation, said in a statement.

Connectivity has become more of a focus as more people are using smartphones and other smart devices for everything. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than two-thirds of all U.S. households (68 percent) access the Internet via their mobile devices,

Global passengers ranked inflight wi-fi as the fourth most important factor — after airline reputation, free checked baggage and extra leg room — in booking a flight. Nearly 90 percent business travelers (87%) say they would use inflight wi-fi to work and 51 percent of nervous flyers would use it to keep in touch with family and friends on land.

Demand for inflight wi-fi outstrips supply. Passengers can send emails, search the Internet and more on some flights, but access is spotty from airline to airline. Less than half of global passengers (45 percent) have traveled on flights offering it, the survey found.

That led Inmarsat to conclude that inflight wi-fi is a key driver in forming airline customer satisfaction and loyalty. More than two-thirds of all passengers (67 percent) are more likely to rebook with an airline if quality inflight wi-fi was available (it’s 83 percent for business travelers and 81 percent of passengers traveling with children).

Most airline passengers are willing to give up other inflight amenities, such as alcohol (53 percent) and meals (54 percent, from Inmarsat’s 2016 survey), for Internet access.

Inmarsat and market research company Populous surveyed more than 9,300 passengers from 32 countries in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.

What will battle about Taiwan name mean for U.S. airlines, passengers?

Flying just became more political for some U.S. airlines.

China’s aviation regulator recently said U.S. airlines missed a deadline to stop referring to Taiwan as a separate entity on their websites.

American Airlines screen shot 7-28-18
This screen shot from American Airlines’ website shows the airport options that appear for a search for Taiwan.

Although American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines removed references to Taiwan on their websites on the July 25 deadline, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said their actions were “incomplete,” according to the Financial Times.

It’s unclear what will happen next — and if it will affect U.S. airlines and their passengers.

Other global airlines, including British Airways and Lufthansa, have shifted to using “Taiwan, China” on their websites.

Lufthansa screen shot 7-28-18
Lufthansa is now using “Taiwan, China” as seen on this screen shot from its website.

In April, China demanded that dozens of global airlines change how they refer to Taiwan by July 25 or risk sanctions.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has called China’s actions “Orwellian nonsense. In a May statement, she said China’s demand was “part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.”

Since 1949, China and Taiwan have been governed separately after the Communist victory in a Chinese civil war. The People’s Republic of China, however, claims Taiwan as part of its territory under its “One China Principle.”

What’s your pleasure? travel

We know more Americans traveled last year, and now we know more about who traveled and how they traveled.

Most people traveled for pleasure, not business, and most of that travel is within the United States.

U.S. leisure travel increased about 2 percent last year, accounting for 80 percent of all U.S. travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA).

Overall, airlines carried a record 965 million U.S. passengers* in 2017, up 3.4 percent from the previous high in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). More than three-quarters of those passengers (742 million) were on flights within the United States.

Airline passenger traffic 2003-17

Travelers were more likely to choose closer-to-home destinations with paid lodgings, but not necessarily a packaged flight, according to travel research firm Phocuswright. In fact, air and cruise purchases declined in 2017, and prepackaged vacations were flat, it said.

Leisure travelers spent $718 billion in 2017, nearly double the amount spent by business travelers and up 5 percent from 2016, according to the USTA. Food and lodging were the top two spending categories.

Here’s how those USTA numbers broke down for 2017:

  • Travelers spent $257 billion on food at restaurants, grocery stores and bars, accounting for 25 percent of all U.S. traveler spending.
  • Travelers spent $220 billion on lodging, including vacation homes and campgrounds, accounting for 21 percent of total U.S. traveler spending. Although more than two-thirds of U.S. travelers (68 percent) stayed in a hotel, that declined from 73 percent in 2016, according to Phocuswright.
  • Spending on auto travel rose 8 percent, mostly due to higher gasoline prices. Phocuswright also found that the number of car rentals also increased slightly
Phocuswright travel trends
Leisure travel trends from 2014 to 2017. (Courtesy of Phocuswright)

U.S. air travel continues to rise this year. As of April, the number of air passengers was up about 5 percent from a year ago, according to BTS statistics.

* Passengers on domestic and international trips traveling on U.S. or foreign airlines.

5 tips for summer travelers to avoid new food screening at airport security

Get ready for longer airport checkpoint lines this summer as travelers may have to remove fruit, sandwiches and other snacks from their carry-on bags for separate screening under new security measures.

Transportation Security Administration agents recently asked a friend of mine to remove fruit and snacks from her carry-on bag at three airports — Dallas Love Field, Denver International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.

Although food is allowed in carry-on bags, the new screening is part of the TSA’s enhanced measures to raise the “baseline for aviation security.” Now, TSA officers may require travelers to separate items from their carry-on bags, such as food, powders and “any materials that can clutter bags and obstruct clear images on the X-ray machine.” (Tips to avoid this at end.)

Travel food photo
Pack your carry-on snacks in a separate bag for easy separation at the airport security checkpoint. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Under the new rules, items that cannot be identified (does that include a mangosteen?) and resolved at checkpoint cannot be taken on an airplane. The entire process could hold up security lines and make waits much longer even though the TSA is adding over 1,600 more security staff at airports in preparation for the summer crush.

Oh yeah, the TSA expects to screen a record number of U.S. travelers this summer: 243 million people vs. more than 239 million during summer 2017.

The TSA’s stronger security measures began last summer — with requiring travelers to separately place all electronic devices bigger than a cell phone (laptops, tablets, e-readers and game consoles) in bins for X-ray screening.

Its appears that travelers with TSA PreCheck, a program that moves low-risk passengers through security quicker without having to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and jackets, won’t be subjected to the enhanced screening measures.

Here are my tips for getting through airport security faster this summer:

  1. Review TSA’s list of banned carry-on items before packing for your trip.
  2. The TSA encourages travelers to organize their carry-on bags and avoid overstuffing them to avoid screening gridlock. Pack your snacks in a separate bag, whether it be a canvas or plastic bag, so you can easily separate it from the rest of your carry-on items. (See my photo at upper right.)
  3. Join TSA PreCheck ($85 for five years) or Global Entry, a similar program ($100 for five years) that also provides faster U.S. Customs clearance.
  4. Buy your snacks at the airport after going through the security checkpoint.
  5. Consider buying food on the airplane. It’s still not the most affordable option, but food options and quality have improved.

Photo at top of a security checkpoint at Chicago’s Midway International Airport is by Chris Dilts, Creative Commons via flickr.

More Alaska Airlines changes are on the horizon

Alaska Airlines today will end its year-old daily flight between Los Angeles and Cuba due to low demand and changes in the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba.

It’s just one of many changes occurring since Alaska merged with Virgin America in December 2016 and have been gradually integrating their operations, staff and policies. Earlier this month, Alaska received a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration for it and Virgin America to fly as one airline, which will enable some of the biggest changes.

Here are some examples of what Alaska has in store this year and beyond:

  • Paint the first Airbus plane in Alaska’s colors this month.
  • Add high-speed, satellite Wi-Fi to its entire fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft starting in March.
  • Upgrade its in-flight menus by adding fresh meal options in the First Class and Main cabins, and West Coast-inspired beer and wine choices.
  • Install blue mood lighting on more Boeing planes. Virgin America is famous for its cabin “mood lighting,” which changes color and brightness throughout a flight depending on the time of day and conditions outside the plane. The largely pink and purple hues were supposed to create a calm environment.
Alaska Airlines' blue mood lighting
Alaska Airlines said it plans to add blue lighting to more planes vs. the primarily pink and purple mood lighting that was popular on Virgin American planes. (Courtesy of Alaska Airlines)
  • Install new modern interiors in all Airbus planes, such as new seats, carpeting and lighting.  Alaska will increase the number of First Class seats and introduce Premium Class seats.
  • Locate an Airbus operations control center with one for Boeing aircraft at its Seattle-based flight operations center in March.
  • Offer travelers one mobile app, website and airport check-in counter when Alaska moves to a single reservations system in late April. For now, customers will continue to use separate Alaska and Virgin America platforms.
  • Update and expand airport lounges, including a new New York JFK lounge in April and a flagship lounge at Seattle next year.
  • See new uniforms designed by Seattle designer Luly Yang in 2019. Flight and ground crews will start testing new uniforms soon.
Since late 2016, travelers already have seen Alaska make the following changes: merge Virgin America’s loyalty program with the Alaska Mileage Plan; end Virgin America’s credit card program to focus on Alaska’s credit card; and update its no-show policy.

The featured photo at top is by Artur Bergman via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Survey: Christmas season is worst time to fly

Just as millions of Americans prepare to fly back home after Christmas, a new study finds that consumers think air travel is more frustrating than it was five years ago.

Consumers also think the Christmas season is the worst time of year to fly, according to the Morning Consult national survey conducted for the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), an industry trade group.

Such negative emotions mean fewer Americans are willing to travel. The survey found that air travel hassles stopped 24 percent of leisure travelers and 14 percent of business travelers from taking at least one trip in the last five years.

And that’s translated into real losses for the U.S. economy. In 2016, the USTA says Americans avoided 32 million air trips because of travel hassles, costing the economy more than $24 billion in spending.

Here are some of the survey findings over the last five years:

  • 60 percent say airline fees, such as those for checked bags, flight changes and seat assignments, have worsened.
  • 51 percent say the overall cost of flying has increased.
  • 47 percent say airport hassles, such as long lines and crowded terminals, have gotten worse.

Improving airports would help, according to the USTA. Two in five frequent business and leisure travelers would take at least three more trips a year if airport hassles were reduced or went away, according to the survey.

In addition, many survey respondents think Congress should pursue policies to: modernize airport and air traffic control infrastructure (60 percent), give airports more flexibility to improve air service options for travelers (55 percent) and maintain competition between airlines (53 percent).

Morning Consult surveyed 2,201 adults online from Oct. 10-12, 2017. Results have a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points.

3 tips to help make holiday travel jollier

A record 107.3 million Americans are expected to travel to grandma’s house or some other destination this holiday season, according to AAA.

Most people will drive, but more travelers will fly because holiday airfares cost nearly 20 percent less than last year and are at a five-year low.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, you’ll probably experience crowds, lines and congestion at airports, on roads and at bus and train stations. Here are three tips to help make traveling jollier this holiday season:

1. The big question for many fliers is whether to wrap gifts that you’ll pack in your luggage.

Transportation Security Administration agents can open wrapped gifts to check what’s inside. It’s especially an issue with checked baggage because you’re not with your luggage at that point in the process. The TSA’s blog says wrapped gifts are allowed, but “not encouraged.”

Tip: Instead, bring wrapping paper, bows and tape with you or buy them when you arrive at your destination.

2. If you’re flying, remember that liquids are limited to 3.4 ounces in a quart-sized plastic bag within carry-on bags. If you have TSA Recheck (it will be printed on your boarding pass), you don’t have to put liquids in a baggie and separate them from the rest of your baggage. There’s no restriction if you pack liquids, such as wine, in a checked bag.

The TSA expands the definition of “liquid” to include aerosols, gels (such as some lip balms), creams (such as lotion) and pastes (such as toothpaste) as liquids in carry-on bags. Medications and infant/child nourishments are exempt from the rule.

Tip: If you must give wine or another liquid as a present, ship it ahead through a mail service or buy it once you arrive at your destination.

mittens-2111853_640
(Creative Commons via Pixabay)

3. No matter how you travel during the holidays, space is sure to be a precious commodity. Most airlines charge at least $25 to check a bag and some have tightened their carry-on limits this year. Choose gifts that won’t occupy too much space in your luggage or car.

Tip: Think small, light and easy-to-pack, such as jewelry, socks, winter accessories, electronic gadgets, candy and gift cards.

Happy holidays!