How is the economy impacting air travel—and how can you turn it to your advantage?
Credit: Robert Dale

The feelings of air travelers right now can be summed up in one simple phrase: We’re mad as hell and…unfortunately we’re going to have to take it some more. These days the only thing more frustrating than flying—what with hidden fees, shrinking legroom, and slashed routes—is the infuriating realization that we travelers and the airlines are stuck with each other, at least until someone finally patents a functioning jet pack. (Really, what’s taking so long?)

Suspend your indignation for a moment and consider all this from their perspective. The airline industry is projecting $9 billion in worldwide losses this year, as costs climb and demand plummets. Between April 2008 and April 2009, overall passenger volume dropped by 11.5 percent. Carriers are responding by cutting flights (down 8.5 percent during the same period), reconfiguring cabins and classes (mostly for the worse but occasionally for the better), and, most egregiously, imposing wily new fees. Then again, why wouldn’t they? U.S. airlines collected half a billion dollars in excess-baggage fees in the final quarter of 2008 alone.

On the plus side, fares have remained relatively steady. According to industry analyst, in 2008 the average cost for a one-way ticket on Delta was $192, this year it’s $199. And the launch of new carriers and service has brought fares down to record lows along certain routes. However, more service cuts are due this fall—reducing flights by an additional 9 percent, according to aviation-consulting firm the Boyd Group International. As capacity diminishes, standard tickets prices will surely rise. That said, airlines will be as eager as ever to fill seats—particularly in first and business class—so you’re still likely to find last-minute deals.

In some ways flying has actually become easier—for the simple fact that fewer people are doing it. Mishandled luggage declined by 23 percent in 2008. Flight delays decreased by about 5 percent year-on-year through March 2009. And security lines are commensurately shorter. “Airports are a lot less crowded, so you won’t find the chaos that characterized last year,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a consumer-rights organization. For travelers, that’s at least a silver lining in some decidedly cloudy skies.