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Winging It: Air travel could experience decline in 2009

After my look back at 2008 last week, it's time to delve into some of the major issues and developments in the travel business that might affect you next year.

After my look back at 2008 last week, it's time to delve into some of the major issues and developments in the travel business that might affect you next year.

At the top of the list is how the dreadful economy is likely to dampen demand for travel in a big way, certainly in 2009 and for who knows how long after that. We will start getting 2008 damage reports and more clarity on 2009 in a few more weeks, when airlines start reporting their fourth-quarter and full-year earnings.

Airline analysts haven't said much new in recent weeks about what they expect the new year to bring. Last month, they were optimistic that falling oil prices, higher fares, new fees, and the carriers' cuts in available seats could make them profitable next year.

But cheerful news about practically every aspect of the economy is so hard to find, it makes me wonder if airline traffic won't plunge into one of the deepest and darkest holes in decades. Even perennial money-maker Southwest Airlines said last week that it is selling 10 of its 737 jets and then leasing them back to raise cash.

Hotel occupancy nationwide is forecast to follow air travel down into the abyss, dropping below 60 percent, PKF Hospitality Consulting says.

If you still have discretionary funds hidden under the mattress, of course, the industry's woes always mean bargains for you when you travel. The prognosticators say to expect lower fares, hotel costs and car-rental prices, at least until we see which way advance bookings are going for travel next summer.

One of the reasons fares have trended downward, especially on international flights, is that fuel surcharges have been reduced or eliminated by many carriers in recent weeks as oil prices have plummeted.

Air-travel costs you shouldn't expect to go down are the "a la carte" fees, for things such as checking bags, reserving certain seats, and buying a ticket over the phone. Airlines have already folded them into their revenue expectations.

While some travelers I hear from are still irritated about the fees, more of you want to know why, with gasoline prices 60 percent below their summer peak, it has taken months for the airline fuel surcharges to come off.

Amid this litany of unhappy prospects, I am hopeful that a new administration in Washington will take some action that should make life better for travelers.

Travel on the ground and in the air will certainly benefit if the president-elect and Congress follow through on proposed economic-recovery plans that include substantial increases in spending on highway, rail and aviation infrastructure. Amtrak, many airports, and virtually every local and state government have transportation construction projects that are overdue.

More help could come from adoption, at long last, of a comprehensive energy policy that reduces greenhouse gases and promotes development of alternative fuels and power sources. At the same time, expect a spirited debate over adoption of carbon-emission taxes if the airline industry believes it is being asked to shoulder an unfair portion of the cost.

The Federal Aviation Administration needs reauthorization legislation itself. Perhaps this will be the year when the FAA stops fighting with its air-traffic controllers' union over staffing levels and redoubles its efforts to retain experienced controllers while hiring new ones to replace retirees.

Action could also be taken on legislation important to business travelers and to attracting more foreign visitors.

In a report to its members last week, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives hailed Congress' introduction of the Travelers' Privacy Protection Act of 2008, an issue the group has championed. I wrote about it in the June 30 column (See

The bill "will dramatically change the procedure used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities in examining laptops and other electronic devices," the group said in a message to members. "Inspectors will have to state the suspicion, secure the approval of a superior, and examine the contents of the laptop in a confidential surrounding - in the presence of the superior and the laptop's owner."

Congress could also adopt a bill introduced this year to promote the United States as a tourist destination and explain better to would-be visitors the unpopular and unfriendly entry requirements imposed since 2001.

The program would be paid for with a $10-per-person fee on foreign visitors who come from a growing list of countries that don't already pay for a U.S. visa. (See

Finally, 2009 will be the year that more airlines install equipment to allow Internet access and text-messaging on a laptop or smart phone during flights. That's a service even old-school travelers like myself may pay $10 to $13 for.

But cell phones are a very different matter. As you and I have made clear to airlines and federal regulators (see, we won't be happy if talking on a cell phone in flight is allowed - next year or ever.