Unfriendly skies to become unfriendlier

America’s newly established position as a global energy leader, demonstrated by record oil and gas production, has produced all sorts of benefits for consumers. Gas prices during the busy summer travel season are down, heating oil and gas prices over the winter were significantly easier on the wallet, and even manufacturing has enjoyed benefits through lower overhead costs. So how about those airline fares? I’m sure they must be coming down too, right? And maybe the cash strapped airlines won’t need to pack us in like sardines quite so much this year. This is gonna be great!

Not so fast there, Skippy.

Don’t expect your flying experience to be pleasant, or cheap this summer. At a meeting of top airline executives this week in Miami, the word on every airline executive’s lips was “discipline.”

Translation: few seats, pricey tickets, bigger profits.

Despite plummeting fuel costs, the airlines’ single biggest cost, few of those savings are getting passed along to passengers.

Instead, record profits. The International Air Transport Association increased its profit outlook for the industry to $29.3 billion, a new high, up nearly 80 percent from last year.

Not to worry. The average airfare price has come down… by 66 cents. Gee, thanks guys.

One of the unfortunate aspects of my job is that I have to travel to various political events from time to time. I say “unfortunate” not because I don’t like being at the events. I always enjoy them. It’s just the actual getting there which brings me down, and that’s kind of sad. I’m old enough to remember when flying was a very different sort of experience. Even in economy class you used to get a meal. Sure, it wasn’t much to write home about in most cases – little more than a TV dinner, really – but at least it would tide you over and you could get a cocktail with it. The seats were a lot better also, and if you’d put on a few pounds over the winter you could generally still fit into them. If you never experienced any of that, perhaps flying today doesn’t seem so bad because you’ve never known anything better. But trust me… it’s really gone downhill.

But if profits are up and overhead costs are down, couldn’t we at least keep things at their relatively crappy current level? It seems not. The airline seats are getting smaller yet again. Oh, and for you thrifty travelers who annoy the rest of us by cramming everything you own into the largest possible carry on bag and jamming them in the overhead to save 25 bucks in baggage fees, you may have to rethink your strategy.

Global airlines announced Tuesday a new guideline that recommends shrinking carry-on bags, in an effort to free up space in packed overhead bins.

The guideline, which is not binding, means that many existing bags currently in compliance with airline rules would not be given preferential treatment in the boarding process. While details of how the guideline will be implemented are murky, and could vary from airline to airline, it raises the possibility that many fliers would be forced to check their favorite carry-on bag.

Fliers might ultimately need to buy smaller suitcases or pay a fee to check their bags, typically $25 each way.

I can think of at least one group of people who will be thrilled about this and it’s the luggage companies. They’ve made a tidy sum producing customized bags which exactly fit into the maximum allowed carry on bag dimensions. If those are now slashed by 30% or more, all of those half size bags will be essentially useless and regular fliers will have to rush out to buy a new one. Great work if you can get it.

Airline customer service is terrible, likely because they have no serious competition and people still have to travel so you, the customer, can just put up with it and shut up. I don’t remember the last trip I took where there weren’t problems on at least one leg of the travel. And nearly every flight is overbooked so they can fill every last seat. People are regularly asked to take a later flight in exchange for a travel coupon or are just booted if nobody volunteers. And based on the above reports, none of that is going to be changing. Bon voyage.