The Year in Review: The Highs and Lows of Travel in 2018

What will folks in the future remember most about 2018? in general, it’s been a real action-packed soap opera of a year, and there were certainly moments of drama in the travel sphere, too.

As we limp towards the finish line, let’s take a sec to reflect on some of 2018’s biggest travel stories.

Turbulent Times for the Low-Cost Carrier

There’s no question that low-cost carriers like WOW air, Norwegian, and Primera have had tremendous influence over the market in recent years. All three have expanded their route network at a breakneck pace, but 2018 was the year that the cracks started to show.

For Primera, a major delay in the delivery of more fuel efficient aircraft proved impossible to recover from. The Danish carrier filed for bankruptcy on October 1, just one month after announcing service to four new routes.

It’s a similar story at WOW where several newly announced cities mysteriously vanished from the schedule just weeks after being announced. For a moment, it seemed as though WOW had finally found a solution to its financial woes by way of an acquisition from Icelandair, but the deal ultimately fell through. WOW continues to restructure its network as they attempt to reach a deal with Indigo Partners, owner of Frontier and Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air.

Of all the current low-cost carriers, Norwegian often receives the most praise, with its shiny young fleet of Dreamliners, 737-800s, and 737 Maxes, but that does not mean it is without its own financial trouble. Norwegian dropped several routes last fall, and rumors continue to swirl around its ability to meet loan obligations.

Bag Fees Increase

In 2018, airlines once again looked to ancillary fees to help offset rising fuel prices. The fee for checking a single bag jumped from $25 to $30, and to $40 from $35 for the second checked bag. JetBlue was the first to make the move at the tail end of the summer travel season, followed by United, Delta, American, Hawaiian, Alaska and other carriers. Of course, fuel prices have since dropped, but there’s zero chance of bag fees going anywhere but up again.

Heavy packers—and anyone else over being nickel and dimed—may want to consider booking future travel with Southwest, who famously allows two free bags, along with other consumer-friendly policies regarding ticket changes and rebookings.

The New Old Longest Flight in the World

It’s been a big year for long range flights, as more fuel efficient aircraft make way for longer routes. In fact, of the world’s 10 longest nonstop flights, half of them were launched in 2018.

Back in January, United launched service between Houston and Sydney, a 17 hour and 30 minute flight spanning 8,596 miles, making it the world’s 6th longest flight.

Qantas made history with the very first nonstop commercial flight between Australia and the U.K. with the launch of its Perth - London service in March. That’s 9,010 miles with a flight time of around 17 hours and 20 minutes.

In October, after a five-year recess, Singapore Airlines reintroduced its nonstop Newark - Singapore service aboard new A350-900ULR (ultra long range) Airbus, once again becoming the world’s longest flight. The journey covers 9,534 miles at around 18 hours and 30 minutes. Not far behind at 17 hours and 55 minutes is Singapore’s service from Los Angeles, which launched in November.

Will next year finally bring a Sydney to London nonstop? Stay tuned.

Changes to Basic Economy

Even if you’re not entirely clear on what basic economy entails, you’ve probably heard enough to know it’s something to be avoided. After all, how much more basic could economy really get?

Well, in the summer of 2018, basic economy did improve by a hair, with American Airlines joining Delta in allowing passengers to bring both a personal item and a carry-on. Of the big three, United is the lone standout, still refusing its basic economy passengers a carry-on. As other carriers continue to hammer out their own takes on basic economy, a carry on allowance now seems to be standard.

In an effort to compete with a growing number of low-cost international airlines, basic economy continued its slow creep into the international market. Virgin Atlantic, Delta, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, Lufthansa, SAS, Aer Lingus, TAP, and Icelandair all sell basic economy tickets with hefty fees for checked baggage.

United Pet Travel Troubles

United suffered a streak of highly publicized pet blunders, starting when a flight attendant ordered a passenger to store a puppy in the overhead during a flight from Houston to New York, causing the pet to suffocate and die. And only days later, United made news again, this time for sending a 10-year old German Shepherd to Tokyo instead of Kansas City.

Airlines Crack Down on Emotional Support Animals

After seeing major increases in reported animal incidents, including biting, urination/defecation, and acts of aggression, Delta, United, American, JetBlue, Southwest, and other airlines began tightening restrictions on support animals.

“The Department of Transportation’s rules regarding emotional support animals are not working as they were intended to, prompting us to change our approach in order to ensure a safe and pleasant travel experience for all of our customers,” said a statement from United.

Passengers are now required to submit additional paperwork, such as vaccination records and health statements from the animal’s veterinarian, a letter from a mental health professional, as well as proof that the animal has been trained to behave properly in public.

Exotic animals such as snakes, spiders, and peacocks were also banned.

Southwest Engine Explosion

In April, shrapnel from an engine explosion aboard Southwest Flight 1380 managed to shatter a window, killing one passenger who was partially sucked outside. The flight from New York to Dallas made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. This was the first US airline fatality in nine years. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board later determined that metal fatigue caused a piece of the engine’s fan blade to break apart after the explosion.

As a result of the incident, the FAA began an inspection of fan blades in Boeing 737 engines.

Fuel Ups and Downs

Airlines spent the better part of 2018 fretting over rising fuel costs, yet were somewhat reluctant to actually hike fares, at least before and during the summer travel season. But once September was in view, checked baggage fees went up across the board. Fares also increased, but probably not enough for most passengers to notice.

Of course, around the same time that these fare and fee hikes were introduced, fuel prices dipped. Does that mean the airlines will pass on the savings? Don’t hold your breath.

Hope for Shrinking Seats?

Anyone fed up with increasingly smaller airplane seats got some good news last October when Congress passed the Federal Aviation Authority Reauthorization Bill. According to the bill, the FAA must decide on a minimum seat pitch. That sure sounds good for consumers, but many are skeptical that the FAA won’t choose to act in favor of the airlines over the interests of passengers. In fact, it’s possible that the FAA could set seat pitch even lower than it currently is, allowing the airlines to squeeze in extra seating. Ultimately, the issue comes down to safety. The FAA requires that all flights allow for evacuation within 90 seconds in an emergency. If the FAA can be convinced that cramped seating is a safety hazard, the agency could move towards a larger seat size, though that seems very unlikely to happen.

Intro image by 06photo via Shutterstock

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