Friday, September 19, 2008

Five Ways The Airline Seat Reductions Will Affect You

1. Flight options dwindle

According to a recent report by the Associated Press, low-cost and legacy carriers plan to cut capacity by anywhere from 5% (Alaska Airlines) to a whopping 16% (United) in the fourth quarter of this year. Even Southwest, the sole airline consistently making a profit, plans to cut 200 flights in 2009, a 6% capacity cut. Many of the other airlines' cuts will be in place by November, just in time for the busy holiday travel season.

The law of supply and demand teaches us that fewer seats will generate more demand among travelers, and more demand will mean less incentive for the airlines to offer cheap fares. Since many people will travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas no matter what the price, you can expect holiday flights to be priced higher than ever.

2. Packed planes

You can also thank capacity cuts for packed planes. Earlier this year, the major airlines' planes generally flew at more than 80% capacity. This fall, you can expect even fuller planes. As anyone who flies coach knows, full planes equal less comfort. Sadly, the days of stretching out with a whole row to yourself appear to be gone.

3. Schedule changes

One of the biggest hassles of capacity cuts is dealing with schedule changes. If you booked well in advance of your trip, you may have already received an e-mail from your airline notifying you about a change in your schedule. If not, an e-mail is probably headed your way soon.

Recently, a flight I booked changed three times after I booked and before I departed. Unfortunately, the airline (ahem, Delta) had changed my one-stop cross-country flight to a two-stop itinerary (yuck!). Worse, it stuck me with a too-short connection time at LAX, leaving me to miss the last flight of the night to my final destination.

Double-check to make sure your new itinerary includes ample time for connections. Oh, and take a look at your new seat assignment or you may wind up in the very last seat in the last row of the plane.

4. Kiss standby seats goodbye

As I noted in a recent column, flying standby can be a good way to switch to an earlier or later flight without paying a hefty change fee. However, capacity cuts may make flying standby significantly more difficult.

If flights continue to fly full this fall, free seats will be few and far between. Flying standby will be a riskier proposition, so don't rely on a seat opening up on your preferred flight. Better to change your flight in advance (and hope the schedule doesn't change) if you need to be somewhere at a specific time.

5. A scarcity of frequent flier tickets

Not surprisingly, frequent flier award tickets are another casualty of capacity cuts. As Tim Winship, SmarterTravel.com's frequent flier expert, commented in late 2007, "With domestic flights currently running 80% full ... seats for frequent flyers have never been harder to come by. If demand for domestic travel remains stable, or increases, the planned cutbacks in available seats will further exacerbate both problems." Today, it looks like these predictions are coming true.

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