There was plenty of airline action in the US this year, so when I was asked to come up with the ten biggest stories of 2011, I quickly realized that was a tough task. After much thought, here is my list of the ten biggest stories to hit the US airline industry in the last year in chronological order.
Southwest Overhauls Rapid Rewards
It had been rumored for years, but at the beginning of 2011, Southwest finally rolled out its new Rapid Rewards frequent flier program. The new program is dollar-based, so it swept aside the standard Southwest had used since inception of the program. Many fliers were angry at the change, but the bigger issue involved all the technical glitches after launch.
American Takes On the GDSs
This fight has really been going on for years, but it heated up early in 2011 with lawsuits flying back and forth between American and the Global Distribution Systems (GDSs). Airlines have been unsuccessful so far at truly altering the relationship with the GDSs, but it’s not for lack of trying. This fight will continue for years to come.
Premium Economy Grows in Importance
United had its Economy Plus offering on the airplane for years but nobody responded. That all changed in 2011. First, Delta announced it would put Economy Comfort on its international fleet. It later followed that up with an announcement that the domestic fleet will get it as well. Meanwhile, the new United confirmed that it will keep Economy Plus on its airplanes. Even American got into the act by vaguely mentioning that there will be a premium economy product on its newest international aircraft, the 777-300ER.
Delta Tracks Bags Like FedEx
Airlines had begun boosting their bag tracking capabilities awhile ago, but Delta finally became the first airline to give travelers what they wanted – FedEx-style bag tracking throughout the travel process. The airline even came up with a nifty little iPhone app that lets you scan your tags and automatically follow them along the way.
The Rise of Streaming Video
In the inflight entertainment world, wifi-based entertainment systems finally took center stage. American announced it would start streaming video on some flights while others jumped on the bandwagon as well. This is only going to grow in popularity.
Delta and US Airways Finally Swap Slots
It seemed to take forever to find the right mix, but Delta and US Airways did eventually propose a deal that the Department of Transportation liked. Delta took most of the US Airways slots at New York/ La Guardia airport while US Airways took most of Delta’s at Washington/National. It’s not completely finished yet, but we’re in the home stretch. The landscape of commercial aviation in both cities is dramatically changed for the better.
Spirit Gets Aggressively Domestically
Little Spirit Airlines has thrived with its ultra low cost carrier model in Florida and the Caribbean, but it made a big push this year to bring it to the domestic market with new flying in Vegas, Chicago, Dallas/Ft Worth, and Phoenix/Mesa. This trend has thrived in Southeast Asia and Europe, but it hasn’t quite caught on in the same way in the US . . . until now.
Delta Cuts Small Cities
Delta decided that the time had come to cut a slew of small cities from its network if it couldn’t get more government subsidies. That’s just one little move in a growing trend. As economics change, small cities feel the brunt of the pain. They’re going to keep losing service at alarming rates.
The Illegal US Airways Pilot Slowdown
It’s no secret that US Airways pilots haven’t been happy with their contracts, but they’ve done very little themselves to fix that problem. Instead, they’ve done counter-productive things, like putting together an illegal slowdown. The courts got involved and told them to back off. They have for now.
American Files for Bankruptcy Protection
The final story is a big one. American, the airline that long touted its pride in being the last of the giants to have not filed for bankruptcy, finally lost that battle. It filed for bankruptcy protection and the process of cutting costs began. We don’t know what American will look like in a year, but it’s going to look different than it does today.