4 Signs Air Travel Is Getting...Better?

Flights may end up less crowded, and on time, this fall.

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The nation's airlines are one of our favorite punching bags, a common touch point of shared misery. With surging oil prices wrecking the airlines' profitability, only globetrotters with private jets (or inveterate landlubbers) have been spared the packed planes and penny-pinching aggravations of the past two years.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that air travel seems to be getting a bit more comfortable. Oh, there's still plenty to complain about. Most airlines now charge for a second checked bag, and some even charge for a first. Airline lounges, an occasional respite from the bustle, are disappearing. United has tried to kick off an interesting trend by charging up to $9 for snacks. And unpredictable snafus with the air-traffic-control system—which is beyond the airlines' control—seem to be a constant.

But smart travelers are adjusting, bringing their own snacks, allowing extra time for foul-ups, and traveling off peak, when planes aren't as crammed. And other trends could make this fall one of the more pleasant times to travel in recent memory. Some of them:

Fewer fliers. The Air Transport Association predicts a 6 percent drop in the number of fliers over the Labor Day holiday. If you're one of those still planning to fly—that's terrific news! The number of passengers is half the equation that helps determine "load factor"—how crowded planes are. With near record load factors of about 78 percent so far this year, a few more empty seats could provide a welcome margin of comfort. Especially since that means not just fewer passengers but fewer carry-on bags clogging the aisles and overhead bins.

The other half of the load-factor equation is the number of seats available. The falloff in fliers will probably persist into the fall, for obvious reasons: a sluggish economy, with strapped businesses and consumers cutting back on spending. But the airlines are also planning big cuts in flights this fall, and fewer passengers on fewer planes could mean the same crowded flights once those cuts take place. So enjoy the load-factor dip while it lasts. And don't get used to it.

Stable fares. Breathless headlines about "skyrocketing" airfares are overstated. Despite worries that mergers like the Northwest-Delta deal will drive up fares, the cost of a ticket has risen only about 4 percent this year. That's less than inflation. As airlines cut back on flights, that could drive up fares a bit in some markets. But it's hard to jack up the price of anything when the number of customers is declining. Plus, the price of oil—and jet fuel—has been falling, lowering costs for the airlines. And instead of boosting fares, the airlines have been adding fees, which fliers can avoid if they pack better and squeeze all of their stuff into one compact bag or bring their own food.

More on-time flights. Improvements have been modest, with tiny month-over-month increases in on-time performance during most months this year. At least, after years of deterioration, the percentage of delayed and canceled flights isn't getting worse. And those flight cutbacks this fall could improve on-time performance, since that means less congestion, one of the main factors behind delays. At least we can hope.

Other travel deals. An overall decline in travel—by plane and car both—means more deals on rental cars, hotels, and resorts. Hotels can't cut back on rooms the way airlines can cut back on flights, so they're likely to keep offering discounts until the customers show up. The Wall Street Journal reports that travelers to resort areas like Palm Springs, Orlando, and Cancun will find some of the best deals in years this fall. All you have to do is get there. Along with your sanity.

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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.