13 Best and Worst Airline Moments of 2017
As 2017 draws to a close, it's time to take a look back at the year’s highs and lows in the airline industry. Due to financial pressures and PR disasters, it was a tough year for some airlines, and for some it's even been their last. For others, 2017 was a glimpse into a future of lower fares and business class cabins where suites are the new standard.
Let’s start with the bad news first…
1. United BumpGate: United Airlines set off a customer-service firestorm in April that made national headlines for weeks after a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight from Chicago (ORD) to Louisville (SDF) in what became known as #BumpGate. Under enormous public pressure, the airline refunded all passengers aboard the flight, CEO Oscar Munoz went on national television to apologize and the airline settled a lawsuit with the passenger, Dr. David Dao, for an undisclosed sum. That wasn’t the end of it, though.
The episode seemed to set off a string of similar incidents, including passengers getting into a shouting match with an American Airlines employee, a family being kicked off a Delta flight for not giving up their son’s seat, and a family being deboarded from a JetBlue flight when one of their children kicked a seat. On the positive side, the number of involuntary bumps across several airlines including United has plummeted since. Airlines changed their policies on involuntary bumps and denied boarding to offer customers in such situations higher compensation, and one Delta passenger even netted $4,000.
2. Air Berlin and Monarch Airlines Disappeared: 2017 was a tough year for European carriers. Two major airlines went bust, and even stranded some travelers.
Air Berlin had been in dire financial straits for years and declared bankruptcy in August and eventually closed shop, ceasing operations on October 27. (Not before TPG editor at large Zach Honig went on his first and last Air Berlin long-haul flight, finding it not a bad experience.) In a final twist, the pilot of its last transatlantic flight made news when he buzzed the Dusseldorf Airport’s air traffic control tower in October and was promptly suspended — even though the airline would go out of business days later. At least Air Berlin topbonus mileage program members were offered status matches by Iberia and could redeem their miles on Etihad, which owned a stake in Air Berlin, for a limited time.
British charter carrier Monarch Airlines abruptly ceased operations on October 2. It was the UK’s largest-ever airline to fold, stranding 110,000 passengers, mostly around Spain. Luckily, the British government stepped in to help out, drafting 27 other airlines to fly passengers home. It was the UK’s biggest peacetime repatriation of citizens and cost taxpayers an estimated £60 million (about $80 million).
3. System Outages at Delta and British Airways: It seems like Delta and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL) need to consider investing in back-up generators. The airline experienced a massive system meltdown due to weather issues in April that took weeks to recover from, and offered either 20,000 SkyMiles or $200 in compensation to all passengers who had at least two flights canceled or experienced delays of at least three hours. However, its home base ATL suffered a total power outage on December 17, just as the busy holiday travel period got busy, which caused the cancellation of over 1,400 flights. Delta's boss now wants a lot of money as compensation, since the blackout was not the airline's fault.
Across the Atlantic, British Airways experienced a worldwide IT outage in May that disrupted the airline’s operations for days on end and affected upwards of 75,000 passengers. Then BA suffered another outage of its FLY ground-based information processing system in August that wreaked havoc at its hub at London Heathrow (LHR) as well as Gatwick (LGW) and London City (LCY) airports.
4. Air Canada Near Miss at San Francisco: In July, Air Canada Flight 759 from Toronto (YYZ) to San Francisco (SFO) nearly crashed into four other airliners, including a United 787-9 readying to take off for Singapore, when it almost landed on an active taxiway instead of a runway due to what appeared to be pilot error. The NTSB released images of the near miss that are bone-chilling. The Air Canada A320 was a mere 50 feet from the first two planes on the ground, and missed the other two by 150-250 feet — very small distances in air traffic control. Luckily, disaster was averted when the pilots aborted landing, but the investigation into how things went so wrong is still ongoing.
5. The End of Virgin America: Virgin America holds a special place in many flyers’ hearts thanks to the airline’s hip, offbeat brand of cool. Alaska Airlines began the process of acquiring Virgin America back in April 2016, with the merger closing last December. Since then, Alaska has moved quickly to assimilate Virgin America into its own brand. It allowed frequent flyer account linking and transfers, integrated elite benefits, rolled up Virgin’s partnerships with other airlines and Amex Membership Rewards. Virgin’s Elevate points program will cease to exist on January 1, the airline’s flights will become Alaska flights starting in April, and the Virgin America brand will be retired altogether by 2019. Soon, there will be one less airline and maybe less fun in the skies over the US.
6. Cater-Gate at LAX: People don't usually look forward to airplane food, at least in coach class. But in any case, passengers flying American Airlines out of Los Angeles (LAX) in November would not get any food, in any class: the Gate Gourmet facility used by American Airlines reported traces of listeria, prompting the airline to suspend its supplies from the catering company. That meant no food on board except for whatever sandwiches and snacks the crew could scrounge up from restaurants and food outlets in the terminals, even on long-haul flights.
7. US Airlines Rolled Out Basic Economy: One of the most dreaded developments in travel this year was the rollout of basic economy fares by the three major US legacy carriers: American, Delta and United. Though restrictions and exclusions vary by carrier, two things were clear: the rollout would be messy, and consumers would basically be paying the same amount for far fewer benefits. United was the first to load these new fare buckets into their ticketing systems on a few routes before widening their scope. Because of consumer backlash and falling revenues, though, the airline actually ended up scaling back the number of flights on which basic economy fares were available. American started small with just 10 routes in February, then rolled out basic economy fares nationwide in September. For its part, Delta went full steam ahead and announced plans to take basic economy international. American admitted that basic economy fares are the new normal and customers should expect to pay more for services that were simply included in airfares in the past.
But it wasn’t all bad news in 2017. In fact, there were some real high points for airlines and travelers alike…
8. Suites Come to Business Class: If you wanted a suite with a closing door on an airplane, you used to have to fly in first class. Back in August 2016, though, Delta announced that it would install an all-suites business class cabin aboard its new Airbus A350s. The announcement and images set the aviation world abuzz as everyone waited to see these suites on an actual plane. Only Qatar Airways beat Delta to the punch, unveiling its own all-suites business class at the Paris Air Show in June and putting them into service that same month. While Delta’s suites have some innovative features including personalized ambient lighting, all-new entertainment systems and ergonomic stowage areas, Qatar upped the ante with suites that can transform into double beds and four-person work or leisure quads. No matter which you think is best, though, the fact that there are now suites with closing doors in business class at all is good news for premium flyers who are going to have more and better choices than ever.
9. Competition for the World’s Best First Class Heated Up: In November, Singapore Airlines and Emirates unveiled mind-blowing new first class suites. Singapore’s are like private sanctuaries in the sky, with separate beds and swiveling seats, 32-inch HD monitors, amenity boxes and enormous lavatories. Emirates’ new suites are the first fully enclosed ones in the air, with privacy hatches for service items, virtual windows for center-seat passengers, 32-inch HD screens and gorgeous design touches inspired by the Mercedes S-Class. Emirates has already put its suites into service on routes from Dubai (DXB) to Geneva (GVA) and Brussels (BRU), while Singapore’s new suites are found aboard one of its flights from Singapore (SIN) to Sydney (SYD). Of course, TPG reviewed both of them, so you can decide whether you'd rather experience the hyper-luxury of the Singapore suites on the Airbus A380 or the technological marvels of the Emirates suites on the Boeing 777.
10. The Launch of New Low-Cost Carrier LEVEL: Another carrier entered the increasingly crowded field of long-haul, low-cost flights from Europe with the launch of this new competitor from British Airways and Iberia’s parent company, IAG. Based out of Barcelona, LEVEL began flying in June 2017 on routes to Los Angeles (LAX), Oakland (OAK), Buenos Aires (EZE) and Punta Cana (PUJ) with fares as low as €99 or $149 one-way. Since then, it has also announced it will begin flying to Boston, and from Paris to Newark (EWR), Montreal (YUL), Martinique (FDF) and Guadeloupe (PTP). While we found some service and technology issues to quibble with, for these prices, it’s still a great way to get to or from Europe.
11. Economy Seats Shrank…Then Grew: American Airlines prompted outrage when it announced it would be shrinking legroom on the economy seats it planned to install on its new Boeing 737 MAX jets from 31 inches to 29 inches. Luckily, the airline reconsidered and said it would ensure that all economy seats would have at least 30 inches of legroom. It was a small victory for flyers to be sure, but at least they didn’t lose (much) ground overall.
12. Delta Flew Into Hurricanes to Rescue Stranded Travelers: It might seem like most airline news tends to focus on the negative. But there are times when airlines come through in a crisis and remind us all of just how wonderful travel can be. One such case was when Delta flew into San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU) right before Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, to get passengers out ahead of the tempest. But that wasn’t all. The airline repeated the feat ahead of Hurricane Maria, landing at the Dominican Republic’s Cibao International Airport (STI) then flying back out through the storm’s rain bands to ferry passengers to safety.
13. United and Delta 747 Retirements: Known as the “Queen of the Skies,” the Boeing 747 ushered in a new era of the Jet Age when it first appeared in 1968. Since then, the double-decker jet put once unimaginable routes and destinations within reach. With the advent of more efficient next-generation jets, though, the Queen might not be flying much longer, prompting some nostalgia among #avgeeks and casual flyers alike. While many of these magnificent aircraft have been retired quietly, United celebrated its final 747 flight — from San Francisco (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL) — with tributes, fanfare and an onboard party. One month later, Delta also retired its 747s — and just like with United, TPG was onboard the last passenger flight and on the farewell tour. If you want to take a 747 while you still can, look to airlines like Lufthansa and Korean Air. Or you can go pay the Queen of the Skies a visit at her retirement home.
It might seem odd to call that last one good news. But it signals a new direction in aviation; one where airlines are using next-gen jets like the 787 and A350 to fly new routes to new destinations and put more of the world within the reach of both habitual and casual traveler.
Featured illustration by Eirian Chapman.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Dr. Dao had been removed from a Louisville to Chicago flight; the reverse was true. The story has been amended.