7 Ways Air Travel Will Change in 2020

In 2019 promises of seamless air travel and stress-free flying seemed more elusive than ever. Airport delays escalated over the summer as the prolonged grounding of the Boeing 737 Max and air industry labor disputes took their toll. But some relief may be coming in 2020 as the industry and U.S. government move to modernize a creaky air traffic control system, while investments in new technologies will hopefully ease some of air passengers’ most common woes. Here are some of the big changes we’ll be watching next year.

The Boeing 737 Max could return

a group of people flying kites in the sky: Southwest's grounded Boeing 737 Max planes© Getty
Southwest’s grounded Boeing 737 Max planes

Nearly 400 Max jets have been sitting on the ground worldwide since last March after two fatal crashes involving the plane. In the U.S. alone, the grounding has taken the equivalent of 40,000 seats out of service every day. Most airlines say they don’t expect to start flying the plane again until March of 2020, with some (like American Airlines) pushing the estimated return into April. Once the FAA gives the green light, expected in early 2020, airlines will spend several months retraining pilots and flying non-revenue operations to reassure worried fliers. In the U.S., three airlines operate the jet: American, Southwest, and United, and all plan to restore service gradually. Overseas, it may take longer. Unlike previous groundings of other jet types, “many regulatory authorities abroad are determined to have their own approvals in place rather than accept a combination of FAA and Boeing approvals,” says John Grant, senior analyst at the OAG aviation data firm. After a full year’s absence, he notes, “it will take some time for people to be comfortable with the aircraft.” But when the now-halted Max assembly lines rev up again at Boeing’s plant, there could be hundreds more of these jets in the air a year from now, flooding the skies with additional capacity—not a bad thing for consumers. And Boeing had taken orders for 4,550 more of the planes as of last year.

New U.S. airlines may take flight

In 2020 we may finally see some new U.S. airlines that actually have a chance of succeeding. And it’s been a while since that happened: Virgin America, launched in 2007, was the last with any staying power, and now it’s part of Alaska Airlines. That means three big network airlines—American, Delta and United—and Southwest have been able to dominate more than 80 percent of the domestic airline business. That could soon change as David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, one of the few U.S. startup carriers that has endured, has moved up the debut for a new low-cost airline to the second half of 2020 (it was originally set to launch in 2021). The carrier, code-named Moxy, will fly between secondary cities in the U.S. with smaller jets that can hold between 110 and 150 people. Neeleman will have some new competition, too. Another airline veteran, former Allegiant president Andrew Levy, is also reportedly trying to start a low-cost carrier in the U.S., using the certificate of a charter line called XTRA Airways. It too will target the smaller markets that the three legacy carriers and Southwest ignore.

Single-pilot cockpits could be tested

Aside from staying out of the way of the big guys, the biggest hurdle facing upstart carriers may be finding enough qualified pilots, a problem that could take years to fix. But according to experts, one solution in the works hinges on advanced technologies that will reduce the pilots’ workload and ultimately make it possible for one person to fly the plane. The idea is that a second ground-based pilot would assist by monitoring multiple flights at once. This concept could be tested on cargo airlines sometime soon, but it’s sure to be controversial, notes Mike Ingram, vice president and general manager at Honeywell Aerospace cockpit systems.

Tourists will fly to space

It’s expected that 2020 will finally be the year when Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s much ballyhooed space tourism venture, will actually get into (and beyond) the air. There’s still much skepticism. The company has aimed for—and missed—many launch dates, and it suffered a setback after a fatal accident several years ago. That said, there are strong indications that it’s readying for its first paid flight, with a recent string of successful tests and a new home at a “spaceport” in New Mexico, along with backing from a new Silicon Valley–based partner, Social Capital. There’s already a waiting list of more than 600 people who’ve paid six-figure deposits for this ultimate joyride.

Virgin Galactic's ship on the edge of space

New tech will mean fewer airport delays

Flight delays aren’t just aggravating, they’re expensive, costing airlines worldwide more than $60 billion a year. The traditional fix—building new airports and runways—is not possible the majority of the time for financial or logistical reasons. But what if we could squeeze more room out of the skies? On January 1, 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration will take a big step toward its goal of switching over from World War II–era, ground-based radar to satellite technology. On that date, all airliners flying in U.S. airspace must carry advanced tracking equipment. It’s all part of a broad $40 billion project known as Next Gen that will give more accurate data to air traffic controllers about a plane’s position in the sky, even over water and remote areas that until now have lacked coverage. Ultimately, this will allow aircraft to safely fly closer together, effectively expanding the airspace over congested regions like New York City.

This new tracking tool, known as ADS-B, won’t magically erase delays. But it will provide a platform for new software, which, among other things, will improve airlines’ and airports’ ability to untangle gridlocked airspace, and provide better information to the public. “Think of it as the Waze of aviation,” says Ron Dunsky, senior vice president of Passur, an aerospace technology company. Like the popular car navigation app, the new air system “will provide much greater predictability, in knowing where the delays are going to be and how long they’ll last,” he says.

Airlines will experiment with dynamic pricing

If you’re already overwhelmed by the process of buying an airline ticket, get ready: The airlines are moving toward a new way of marketing their product to consumers that will mimic the pricing practices of, say, an Amazon or a Walmart. They’ll do this by tapping into your personal data and travel history to create customized “bundles” of services, including airfare and ancillary services like Wi-Fi or lounge access. Some airlines are already deploying dynamic pricing for items like checked bags. Spirit, for example, varies the level of bag fees depending on demand. But critics worry that the rise of these tactics could make it harder to compare prices and ultimately make airfares higher for everyone. Recently, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged government agencies to look into the trend, citing “the potential for widespread price discrimination” in air travel.

“Plane shaming” will spur more carbon offsets and travel alternatives

Flying may be getting a bad name for its contribution to global warming, but until now, that hasn’t put the brakes on consumers’ wanderlust. That could begin to shift in 2020, as “plane shaming” spreads past Northern Europe. It may be slower to take hold in the U.S., where there are fewer alternatives to jet travel over longer distances. But in the short term, expect carbon offsets to grow in popularity, and look for airlines that serve the U.S. to take the lead. Qantas, for example, recently announced that it would start matching its passengers’ carbon offset contributions dollar-for-dollar, doubling the airline’s mitigation efforts; and Scandinavian Airlines said it would offset the carbon footprint of any flight booked with an I.D. number through its frequent flier program, EuroBonus. KLM is also championing sustainability efforts, taking steps like encouraging short-haul travelers to take the train.

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