When booking an airline trip, passengers face a dizzying number of decisions: Economy or business-class seat? Pay extra to board early or get in line? Buy a refundable or non-refundable ticket? Book a seat with a personal entertainment system or just read a magazine?
Travelers have so many choices that, according to new survey, some passengers spend more time shopping for a flight than they do actually flying.
Almost 20 percent of travelers spent five or more hours shopping and booking flights, according to a survey by a division of technology giant IBM Corp. of more than 2,000 business and leisure travelers. Business travelers were generally more efficient in booking a flight than leisure travelers, but almost 40 percent of business travelers spent at least two hours shopping and booking.
"There is now so much content and big data that people have to shop and shop and shop," said Brian O'Rourke, global airline leader for IBM, which produces software and hardware for reservation systems and offers other airline services.
But the bad news for airlines, according to the survey, is that price, routes and schedules are still the most important factors travelers cite when choosing an airline — not brand preference or in-flight amenities.
In fact, the survey found 57 percent of passengers surveyed can perceive a difference in services among airlines, but only 41 percent are willing to pay extra to fly on their favorite carrier.
Airline industry decries fee plan
Although the airline industry has collected billions of dollars in fees to check bags and change flight reservations, among other charges, it is crying foul over a government proposal to increase a passenger charge by $2.50 a ticket.
Facing a massive federal deficit, President Obama's latest budget proposes giving airports the authority to raise a passenger facility charge to pay for airport construction projects. The current fee is $4.50 a ticket and could go as high as $7 to offset $1.1 billion in cuts to airport grants. Congress must approve the proposed increase for it to take effect.
But airline representatives say such an increase would be a burden to passengers and hurt the industry's recovery.
"Our passengers are already overburdened — with a typical $300 round-trip domestic ticket including some $60 in taxes and fees," said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Assn., the trade group for the nation's largest airlines.
Speaking of fees, the 10 largest U.S. airlines collected $2.1 billion from baggage fees, reservation change fees and other charges from April to June of last year, federal statistics show. But Medina said the higher facility fees proposed by Obama and the fees charged by airlines are different because passengers can choose to check a bag or change a reservation but have no choice with the passenger facility charge.
Said Medina: "It's an apples and oranges comparison."
E-cigarettes may get grounded
It has been decades since the federal government banned the smoking of tobacco on all commercial flights in the U.S. and yet the topic remains cloudy.
The nation's ban on smoking on airlines has come under scrutiny again in the last few years with the development of electronic cigarettes.
The battery-powered devices use a heating mechanism to vaporize a flavored liquid solution stored in the mouthpiece, which may contain nicotine.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a letter to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., this month that he plans to amend airline regulations in the spring, making it clear that electronic cigarettes fall under the smoking ban.
The nonprofit group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights applauded LaHood's decision. If e-cigarettes are allowed on planes, tobacco smokers may be confused into thinking they can smoke too, said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of the group. Health effects of e-cigarettes are still unclear, she said.
"There are certainly a lot of questions with e-cigarettes."
Bigger seats, higher prices
Business travel is roaring back after a two-year slump, and the airlines are welcoming it with a selection of new amenities, including bigger, more comfortable seats. But the luxuries typically come at a price.
For example, Delta Air Lines announced plans to add a premium economy section — "economy comfort" — on all long-haul international flights by this summer. The airline will charge an extra $80 to $160 each way, depending on the route.
The new seats will feature up to 4 more inches of legroom and 50 percent more recline than Delta's standard international economy-class seats. The seats will be installed in the first few rows of the economy cabin on more than 160 aircraft by this summer.
Dutch airline KLM recently announced the addition of a European business-class seat with more space and privacy because the middle seat will be left empty. The added charge over an economy seat can be as much as $400 each way.
Starting next month, Cathay Pacific Airways will offer a new business-class seat that is nearly 2 inches wider and 4 inches longer than the current business-class seats when it converts into a lie-flat bed. The new seats will be featured on Cathay Pacific's Boeing 777-300ERs from Los Angeles to Australia. A round-trip ticket could set you back nearly $12,000, depending on the route and time of year.
With the economy on the mend and businesses spending more for travel, Michael W. McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Assn., said he was not surprised by the new offers. "These seats are a good return on investment," he said.
Jami Counter, senior director of SeatGuru, a website that reviews airline seats, expects to see more of the same. "We look forward to seeing what other seat enhancements airlines roll out down the line."
Leaking images would be a crime
There is good news for airline passengers who worry that embarrassing photos taken by airport scanners may leak out and show up on the Internet: Two senators are proposing to make it a crime to disseminate such images, punishable by up to a year in prison.
Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Charles E. Schumer of New York have proposed an amendment to an aviation spending bill that would prohibit anyone with access to the scanned body images from photographing or disseminating those images. As proposed, violators could face fines of up to $100,000 and a prison term.
"We need to do everything we can to protect the privacy rights of the air travelers," Schumer said in a statement.
The Transportation Security Administration has installed more than 500 scanners at 78 airports in an effort to check for hidden weapons and contraband. The scanners use low levels of radiation to create what look like nude images of the screened passengers. TSA officials say the machines cannot store such images.
The amendment also would make it a crime to use a personal camera to photograph the images created by the scanner.
Best-looking flight crew poll
For decades, airlines hired only young, single women to work as flight attendants to put a pretty face on in-flight services.
But in the 1960s and '70s, airline unions pressed the carriers to allow any qualified person to work as a flight attendant regardless of gender, age or appearance.
That didn't stop the organizers of the Business Travel and Meetings Show in London from taking a survey of 1,000 participants to choose the airline with the best-looking flight crew.
Of those questioned, 53 percent said Virgin Atlantic's crew was the most attractive, followed by 18 percent for Singapore Airlines' crew and 12 percent for Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates.
Jeff Pharr, a spokesman for the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants, called the survey "very offensive." The group represents nearly 18,000 flight attendants who work for American Airlines.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, flight attendants play a much more important role than just serving drinks with a smile, Pharr said.
"We are the first responders on the plane," he said. "I don't see that looks have anything to do with that."