Sky Talk

Pack some patience if you’re traveling this summer

DFW Airport expects a record 18 million passengers during the busy summer travel season.
DFW Airport expects a record 18 million passengers during the busy summer travel season. kbouaphanh@star-telegram.com

Videos of a passenger being dragged off a plane, a flight attendant arguing with a passenger over a stroller, and passengers brawling as they try to depart a flight have raised tensions for travelers as the busy summer travel season begins.

“You have to travel with more patience than usual,” said Charlie Leocha, founder of Travelers United, a passengers rights group. “With all of these incidents right now, we don’t need to exacerbate the problem of us against them.”

Airlines have been spending more money on customer service training for flight crews and gate agents and are deploying new technologies to make it easier to keep track of bags and check in customers, industry analysts say.

But with a record 234.1 million passengers expected to travel on U.S. airlines this year, flights will be full and customer service issues are likely to arise.

“We’re simply waiting for something to go wrong and I think the airlines and their employees are keenly aware of this,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.

Customer service

Airlines have spent millions on technologies such as mobile check-in apps to make the flight and airport experience better for customers.

To shorten the long security checkpoint lines travelers experienced last summer, carriers including American Airlines have invested millions in new automated screening lanes to help move customers along faster. The new lanes are open in Chicago and Atlanta and are being installed at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport this year.

Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica tells customers to get to the airport early to avoid any potential flight issues.

“Airports have really improved in terms of the amenities they offer in terms of food and drink and shopping and entertainment,” Hobica said. “Don’t be one of those people who rushes onto the plane at the last minute when the door is closing.”

At DFW Airport, a record 18 million customers are expected to travel through its terminals, up 3.5 percent over last year. The airport recently opened a new parking garage at Terminal E with more than 3,500 parking spaces and a parking guidance system to tell customers which spaces are available.

The airport also unveiled a new mobile ordering app where travelers can pre-order and pick up a meal in the terminal.

“We’re excited to introduce these new features, and we’ll continue to work on new ways to elevate the customer experience at DFW,” said the airport’s executive vice president of revenue management Ken Buchanan.

Crowded skies

Industry group Airlines for America expects 234.1 million passengers to travel between June 1 and August 31, up 4 percent from last summer.

“We continue to see consumers value experiences and travel, and airlines are responding accordingly by increasing staffing and boosting the availability of seats in the marketplace, as well as further investing in new aircraft and customer-facing technology,” said Airlines for America’s chief economist John Heimlich.

Airlines are adding more seats, although not necessarily more flights, which analysts say could lead to more overbookings or problems reaccommodating passengers following severe weather events.

“It used to be much more crowded [during the summer] than it is at other times of the year, but now we’re flying at full capacity every single day,” Leocha said.

In the aftermath of the United Airlines dragging incident, carriers announced changes to how they deal with passengers on oversold flights. Delta Air Lines said it will offer up to $10,500 to passengers who volunteer to give up their seat on overbooked flights.

The chances of a passenger getting paid the full amount, however, are slim.

“It’s a race to the bottom. It’s the first person who will take the deal,” said airline consultant Bob Mann. “You’re unlikely to have the whole airplane hold out for $10,000.”

For Memorial Day, AAA Texas forecasts that 3.2 million Texans will travel during the holiday weekend, up 2.6 percent from last year, and the highest Memorial Day travel volume since 2005.

“Higher confidence has led to more consumer spending, and many Americans are choosing to allocate their extra money on travel this Memorial Day,” said AAA senior vice president Bill Sutherland.

Deals still available

Although most people traveling for the summer have already booked their tickets, analysts say there are still deals available, particularly for travel in late August.

“We’ve seen so many deals in the $300s to Europe for that period after August 15,” Hobica said.

With more low-cost carriers, such as Norwegian Air and Wow, entering the trans-Atlantic market, fares have been more volatile. Analysts say consumers who have flexible travel dates can book cheap fares to Europe even during the summer.

American and United are also expanding their basic economy fares to more routes for the summer, although analysts caution that consumers need to be aware that those fares do not allow passengers to take on a rollerboard bag or choose a seat assignment.

“If you’re on one of those basic economy fares and you miss your flight, you’re going to have to buy a whole new ticket,” Hobica said.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

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