How’s this for an airline-industry slogan for 2018: More rules, less room.
This year will see more airplanes—new and old—squeezing in more seats. But U.S. travelers will also start seeing more opportunities to buy more space without spending many thousands of dollars on international flights.
Here’s a rundown of significant changes travelers can expect in 2018:
More Seats, Less Room
Just when you thought airlines couldn’t squeeze more seats onto airplanes, more planes are coming with even more densely packed seating.
American will be taking delivery of more Boeing 737-8 MAX jets this year with coach rows set at only 30 inches, an inch or two smaller than older 737s of the same size. The Max has the same cabin size as the Boeing 737-800. American used to fly 150 seats on the 737-800, then upped it to 160 with “slim line” seats. The Max has 172 seats in American’s configuration. (Southwest will fly the Max with 175 seats—but no first-class cabin or extra-legroom rows. So Southwest’s seats have more room on average.)
The slim-seat retrofit squeeze, which began more than five years ago, isn’t the only way airlines are shoehorning seats into planes. Smaller restrooms and galleys clear space for more seats, and some wide-body jets are getting more seats in each row.
More of United’s 777s will get 10 seats across each coach row, up from nine. That’s a change that American and several foreign airlines have already made. (Delta remains at nine abreast.) Other United planes, like some 757s, that haven’t yet gotten the slim-seat squeeze will be headed into the hangar in 2018 for what airlines fondly call “densification.”
TSA ID Changes
A 2005 law requires states to update their identity verification procedures when issuing IDs like driver’s licenses. Only 27 plus the District of Columbia are compliant so far, and a deadline looms. The Transportation Security Administration is threatening to stop accepting driver’s licenses from noncompliant states starting in October. In theory, you’d need a passport at TSA checkpoints or go through secondary screening.
Twenty states have an extension to October, but three—New York, Michigan and Louisiana—don’t. Technically TSA could stop accepting state-issued IDs from those states on Jan. 22.
Extensions are likely. It seems doubtful that Homeland Security would bollix up TSA checkpoints with sweeping new ID requirements. But you might want to have your passport handy by October if you live in a noncompliant state, just in case.
TSA also says it likely will expand a pilot program where travelers don’t need a boarding pass to go through security—only an ID. TSA has a machine that it says better verifies driver’s licenses and passports and checks them against both flight lists and status lists, like PreCheck.
The machines, called Credential Authentication Technology, have been in place since summer at PreCheck lanes in six airports: Washington’s Reagan and Dulles, Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta, Boston and Austin, Texas.
And TSA will continue expanding stricter rules for carry-on baggage. Already at more than 200 airports, TSA makes people remove all personal electronic devices larger than a cellphone from a carry-on and place them in a bin. (PreCheck fliers still avoid this.) The idea is to declutter bags so conventional X-ray machines get a better view of what’s what. In 2018, all TSA airports will be implementing the checkpoint procedure, the agency says.
Room for Sale
American and Delta are finally catching up to their international rivals on premium economy. (United has yet to announce a premium economy plan.)
American says it will complete its rollout of premium economy on wide-body planes by the end of the year, putting it ahead of U.S. competitors. American plans to have 102 aircraft equipped with premium economy.
Delta says five A350s are in service with premium economy and six more will be delivered in 2018. In addition, Delta says retrofits on its 777-200 aircraft will start flying with premium economy in the summer.
Think of premium economy as what business class used to be before lie-flat beds. It’s actually fairly close to domestic first-class seats, at least the shrunken, slim-line variety. You get ample legroom, a bit wider seat, your own cabin (key factor: bathroom) and often upgraded meal service over coach. It’s different from extra-legroom rows on U.S. airlines—a separate class of service.
A premium-economy ticket can cost $700 to $2,000 more than a regular economy fare, but still significantly less than a $7,000 business-class seat. It’s a great option for budget-minded business travelers or leisure travelers willing to pay for adequate space to escape the coach squeeze on long flights.
Mergers That Matter
Alaska Airlines says it will merge Virgin America’s operation into its own in 2018. The Virgin America name will eventually disappear. The combined company moved to one frequent-flier program on Jan. 1—Alaska’s Mileage Plan. A spokeswoman says the merger should be 80% complete by June.
Another closely watched merger for frequent travelers: Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood. The two companies have different loyalty programs, and customers are anxious to see how the two fit together. Marriott has said to expect small changes in 2018. The move to a single loyalty program will likely happen in 2019.
Smart Bag Setback
Smart bags—luggage with GPS tracking devices and other electronics that help you keep track of your bag plus power ports to charge phones and tablets on the fly—have been popular with many road warriors. But they’re getting grounded by many airlines starting Jan. 15.
The FAA has deemed lithium batteries a potential fire hazard. So American, Delta, Southwest, Alaska and others have decided not to accept smart bags as checked luggage unless the batteries can be removed. (Once you remove the power, you can’t track your smart bag, diminishing its utility.) Carry-on bags can fly only if the lithium is removable; if the bag has to be checked, the battery must come out. On some of the bags, including Bluesmart, the batteries aren’t removable.
Makers of smart bags with nonremovable batteries say they are seeking waivers—they believe their bags are safe.
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Write to Scott McCartney at MiddleSeat@wsj.com