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15 People Who Changed Travel in 2017

Dec. 18, 2017
12 min read
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When historians look back on 2017, they’ll see it as a year of great changes — political, social, and economic — that all had an impact on how we explore and discover the world. From travel bans and security concerns to the rise of artificial intelligence and new developments in technology, the way we travel has changed mostly for the better, with some hiccups along the way.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the leaders, innovators and disruptors who have had the greatest influence on travel this year.

Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Atlantic

When the news broke in March that Alaska Airlines would retire the Virgin America brand next year, the passionate entrepreneur wrote a bittersweet farewell letter to the employees and fans of the US carrier he founded, and it quickly went viral.

“You proved it is possible to run a business with a strategy that does not rely on low fares and a dominant position alone: You attracted premium flyers with a fun and beautiful guest experience. You created the world’s most loved safety video. You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love,” he said.

All is not lost, though, Virgin lovers. Branson has hinted that he’s looking into starting a new airline in the US.

Sir Tim Clark. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images.
Tim Clark. Photo by Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images.

Tim Clark, President of Emirates

A leader of the renaissance of luxury air travel, Clark has helped the Dubai-based carrier become one of the world’s best airlines. In November, he unveiled Emirates’ game-changing first-class suites, which debuted on the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER earlier this month. And Clark’s decision not to place a new order for any Airbus A380s this year (the company has the largest fleet of A380s in the world) may well be the nail in the coffin for the costly jumbo jet — Airbus has not received an order for any A380s since 2016.

David Dao, United Airlines Passenger

In April, the video of David Dao being physically abused while being dragged off of a United Airlines plane in Chicago set off an epic avalanche of outrage. United CEO Oscar Munoz’s response justifying Dao’s removal as a necessary matter of accommodating off-duty crew members was quickly perceived as tone-deaf and only added fuel to the social-media fire. Later, Munoz backtracked and apologized, and the airline reached a settlement with Dao.

As a result of the incident, United said it would offer passengers up to $10,000 to volunteer their seat when necessary. The controversy also has forced the industry to re-think its bumping policies as well as implement new re-booking procedures. In August, the Department of Transportation released data showing that the airline bumping rate had dropped to its lowest since 1995, thanks to #BumpGate.

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Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase

When Chase announced the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card in August 2016, it changed the landscape of travel credit cards overnight. With a 100,000-point sign-up bonus, $300 in annual travel credit, $100 toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, a multitude of transfer partners, a Priority Pass membership, no foreign-transaction fees and triple points on travel and dining around the world, it became known as the best card on the market.

Chase’s competitors quickly began re-thinking their elite card offerings — within months, Amex announced changes to its Platinum Card®, with a 60,000-point welcome bonus and 5x points for every dollar spent on airfare and hotels booked through American Express Travel. Though Chase later reduced the CSR sign-up bonus to 50,000 points and began limiting Sapphire sign-ups, TPG says that after a year of spending and discovering the card’s value, it remains one of the best elite loyalty cards for savvy travelers.

Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator

Nearing the end of his five-year term as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Huerta is responsible for the safety of the world's largest aerospace system and oversees a $16 billion budget and more than 47,000 employees. Throughout his tenure, the FAA has grappled with how to handle the rise in commercial and private drones, the industry’s aging computer systems, and a push by legislators to hand the nation’s air-traffic control systems over to a private corporation.

In a recent speech at the Aero Club of Washington, Huerta said: “The industry has a new need for speed. And as a regulator, the FAA can’t afford to move at the traditional pace of government. We’ll get left behind at the launchpad, wondering what just happened.”

Liz Hunt, Product Manager of Google Maps

The best mapping app on the market got a major overhaul last month by a team led by Liz Hunt, a former mobile-engineering manager for Starbucks. The new Google Maps gives users the option to choose between three different formats: exploring, driving and public transit. It also features a new color palette and icons to distinguish among dozens of points of interests, such as hotels, restaurants, bars, drugstores and museums. The new Google Maps also uses AI to customize each user's experience.

“When you schedule an event using Google Calendar, get a reservation confirmation in Gmail, or add a restaurant to your Want to Go list, Google Maps reflects that too,” Hunt wrote in a blog post.

Derrick Johnson, CEO of the NAACP

In October, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a statement urging African Americans not to travel on American Airlines, citing four claims of discrimination by travelers: “In light of these confrontations, we have today taken the action of issuing a national advisory alerting travelers — especially African Americans — to exercise caution, in that booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions.”

AA’s CEO Doug Parker immediately responded, saying he was disappointed in the decision and that the airline would not tolerate discrimination of any kind. After meeting with NAACP officials, Parker announced in November that all AA employees will be required to receive anti-discrimination training.

Bjorn Kjos, Founder and CEO of Norwegian Air

Kjos is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for inspiring more Americans to get a passport and visit Europe for the first time — thanks to one-way fares starting at $199 and the occasional sale fare of $99. The airline he founded in 1993 as Norwegian Air Shuttle is quickly becoming the world’s fastest-growing carrier, with dozens of new routes added this year, including 25 new nonstops from US airports to Europe and the Caribbean, and 11 more routes from the US coming in 2018. Many of them connect smaller American airports (such as TF Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, and Stewart International Airport in New York’s Hudson Valley) to European cities, making it easier for travelers living in the suburbs to travel internationally.

Steph Korey (left) and Jen Rubio. Photo courtesy of Away.
Steph Korey (left) and Jen Rubio. Photo courtesy of Away.

Steph Korey and Jen Rubio, Co-Founders of Away

This was a breakout year for the former Warby Parker executives, as more and more celebrities were spotted toting the Away Carry-On through airports. The stylish four-wheel smart suitcase has a built-in removable lithium-ion battery (which complies with the new airline rules that begin Jan. 15, 2018) that can help charge any device via USB. Priced at $225, it’s one of the more affordable options for smart luggage. Read our review here.

Need more than just a small carry-on? There are two sizes of carry-on suitcases, and two sizes of checked luggage, which can only be purchased via the Away website. Korey and Rubio have also launched an online travel magazine called Here, with travel content written by “experts, expats and people who see the world differently.”

Ben Leventhal, CEO and Co-Founder of Resy

The revolutionary dining app Resy curates hand-picked restaurants and notifies you when a table becomes available. Airbnb made a $13 million investment in Resy earlier this year, and in October it announced a new partnership that would allow travelers to book restaurant reservations in 16 cities in the US directly via the Airbnb app. Currently, Resy only operates in the United States, but Leventhal said that travelers will soon be able to use it abroad.

“Restaurants and food are how cities show themselves off. Internationally, it will be so simple, already translated into other languages,” Leventhal said at the time of the announcement.

Maggie Moran, Head of Product at Hopper

The airfare search app Hopper is becoming the fare-prediction leader, going head to head with Google and Kayak. Launched in 2007 as a website, the now mobile-only platform collects billions of price quotes each day to follow the trends of fluctuating airfares and help consumers determine the best time to buy a plane ticket. The company says it can predict airfare prices with 95-percent accuracy.

Overseeing the app is Moran, who joined the company four years ago and led the rollout of Hopper’s new hotel-pricing predictions for New York City earlier this year, with more cities coming in 2018. A search for a last-minute stay in December resulted in six hotels that the app identified as a great deal, with savings of up to $51 per night.

Elon Musk. Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images.
Elon Musk. Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images.

Elon Musk, American entrepreneur

Despite delayed deliveries for some Tesla customers, it’s been a big year for the visionary businessman, with progress on his innovative plans for a hyperloop transportation system featuring passenger pods that shoot through vacuum tubes. In May, Hyperloop One completed its first successful test on the DevLoop test track in the Nevada desert. Over the summer, Musk tweeted that he received permission to build a hyperloop that would connect NYC to Washington, DC, and last month he announced his intention to bid for a proposal to build a new high-speed Loop that would take passengers between O’Hare (ORD) and downtown Chicago in just 20 minutes.

Though his SpaceX program has had a few setbacks with rocket test launches, Musk also made headlines when he said that he would take two private citizens to the moon and that he would travel to Mars by 2022 to begin building a colony on the Red Planet.

Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International

Sorenson has reiterated that he has no intention of eliminating any of the company’s 30 brands, and in September said that he hoped the integration of the Starwood merger would be fully complete by the end of next year. While some brands, like Marriott and Sheraton, are undergoing a refresh, the company is focusing on expanding some of the newer ones, such as Aloft, Moxy and Element, with more than 300,000 rooms planned over the next three years.

Most importantly for guests, the Marriott Rewards and Starwood SPG loyalty programs are now overseen by former SPG head Tim Flueck, who’s now the SVP of loyalty programs at Marriott. Earlier this month, TPG named Starwood Preferred Guest as the best hotel loyalty program in the world. The programs were merged at the close of the acquisition in September 2016, offering guests an instant status match and the ability to transfer points between accounts. Marriott has said that it plans to launch an IT platform that merges both platforms by 2018, though it’s still not clear if it will continue to offer two loyalty credit cards (the Chase Marriott and the Amex SPG cards).

Donald Trump, President of the United States

Perhaps no one on this list has had a greater impact on travel this year than Trump. One week into his presidency, the Trump administration announced a travel ban that restricted entry into the US for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East, resulting in thousands of stranded passengers who had already booked travel. Protests ensued at airports across the US, and federal judges quickly worked to stop it, resulting in many months of battles in the courts while it evolved to include revised policies. Early this month, the US Supreme Court allowed the newest iteration of the ban to go into effect.

In addition to the travel ban, the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration in March announced a new electronics ban barring carrying on mobile devices and laptops on any flight originating in the Middle East, causing airlines to develop work-arounds to provide gate-checked boxes for electronics. And, in November, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on Cuba, making it more difficult for American tourists to visit.