A decade of drastic change in the travel industry: How passengers come out on top

Dec 27, 2019

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It’s been a decade of major changes in the travel industry. As TPG turns 10 and we look ahead to the 2020’s, we’re looking back at some of the biggest stories of the past decade.

Change hasn’t always been great for passengers and consumers. It’s one of the reasons TPG exists — to help you find value despite some negative industry trends.

In this photo released by Alaska Airlines, A specially painted, co-branded Alaska Airlines and Virgin America 737-900ER aircraft, painted in shimmering red, purple and blue and featuring the slogan “More to love,” lands at San Francisco International Airport on December 14, 2016 in San Francisco, CA. The newly painted aircraft is part of the merger celebration of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America. (Photo by Alaska Airlines, Bob Riha, Jr.)
A specially painted, cobranded Alaska Airlines and Virgin America 737-900ER aircraft. (Photo by Alaska Airlines, Bob Riha, Jr.)

Just a few of the trends we’ve covered here at The Points Guy:

We’ve seen the debut of bigger airports and airport makeovers, massive devaluations of loyalty programs, tougher qualification requirements for status (spend and travel requirements), elimination of airline award charts, major mergers of airlines and hotels and other industry consolidation, new airplane technology and improvements, the spread of lie-flat business-class seats, the growth of premium-economy cabins, the installation of Wi-Fi, consolidation and mergers of plane manufacturers, and much more.

We’ve also watched credit card companies make it harder to open multiple credit cards for bonuses. Consumers have had to become much smarter.

And as much as we’d like to, who can forget the rollout of basic economy?

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In This Post

Scott Mayerowitz is executive editorial director at The Points Guy. He spent 20+ years covering the aviation and travel industry. “So much has changed in aviation over the past decade, yet at the same time, the fundamentals of flying and our basic airport structure has shockingly changed little,” says Mayerowitz.

He reminded me about the “unbundling” of airfare with, “extra fees for bags, seat assignments and — on low-cost carriers — even use of the overhead bin.”

Mayerowitz told me, “The base ticket price continues to fall and now-profitable airlines are reinvesting some of that money into faster Wi-Fi and better entertainment, even if some airlines are removing seatback TVs.”

According to Mayerowitz, “It’s also been the safest decade to fly as airlines have learned from past accidents and built more sophisticated planes. Aircraft have become more fuel-efficient and can now, profitably, connect more cities than ever before, nonstop. New premium seats offer amenities unheard of a decade ago. And developing nations now have more air service than just a few years ago, enabling a new group of people to take to the sky for the first time.”

Ed Pizzarello runs the popular blog Pizza in Motion and is a TPG contributor. He said:

 “Over the past 10 years the biggest change I’ve seen is the accessibility of travel. What was once a rich person’s hobby has been fully democratized. Low-cost airlines have grown to represent a huge part of travel worldwide.The decade started with changes like the initial growth of Chase Ultimate Rewards as an able-bodied competitor to American Express’ Membership Rewards program. Southwest Airlines was busy acquiring AirTran and growing into the behemoth it is now. Fast forward to the end of the decade. Southwest is flying internationally while airlines like Frontier and Spirit regularly offer one-way tickets for less than the price of a tank of gas. Google has made things much easier for travel deal hunters with their flight and hotel search engines.”  

Delta and Northwest Airlines merged in 2008. (Photo by George Frey / Getty Images)
Delta and Northwest Airlines merged in 2008. (Photo by George Frey / Getty Images)

Mergers Galore

Among the biggest changes were the giant mega-mergers that have shaken up the industry. The decade began with the combination of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines (initiated in 2008) and saw United take over Continental later that same year. In 2013, we saw the merger of U.S. Airways and American Airlines, and most recently, the merger of Alaska Airlines with Virgin America.

And that’s just U.S. carriers.

Don’t forget about hotel mergers. The biggest hotel story of the decade was probably the Marriott takeover of Starwood in a $12-billion deal. Consumers are still reeling from that merger.

Photo by Shutterstock.com
(Photo by Shutterstock.com)

Ugly Changes to Loyalty Programs

The thing I’ve hated the most this past decade is the dramatic changes to airline and hotel loyalty programs. I’m especially frustrated with spend requirements, and how the airlines make it harder and harder to qualify for elite status. Airlines have also gone through round after round of devaluations, and they’ve pulled award charts and moved toward dynamic pricing. Many hotel programs have also had big devaluations and have added spend requirements. Ethan Steinberg wrote about all the changes in another post on changes to loyalty programs here.

Bigger, Better Airports

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)
The new Daxing Airport in Beijing. (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

From brand spanking new airports like Beijing Daxing to the remarkable new amenities of airports like Singapore’s Changi Airport, airports have had a massive growth spurt in the past decade.

In the U.S., the story hasn’t been as robust, but in the last few years, several have begun offering at least some competition. TPG aviation reporter Ned Russell writes, “Beijing Daxing (PKX) is designed to handle 72 million passengers annually, or roughly the equivalent of the traffic that currently flies through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), the world’s 15th busiest.”

The Jewel at Changi Airport September 2019. Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.
The Jewel at Changi Airport, September 2019. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

I recently toured the glorious new Changi Airport in Singapore. The centerpiece of the redone airport is the Jewel — the world’s largest indoor waterfall. TPG’s Ethan Steinberg wrote about it here.

And American airports are even trying with all three New York-area airports getting makeovers — a new concourse at LGA amidst a huge renovation, a major facelift for New York-JFK, and a new terminal at Newark (EWR).

Source: Delta Air Lines
(Source: Delta Air Lines)

Wi-Fi, Glorious Wi-Fi

You’ll now find inflight Wi-Fi on most major U.S. airlines, and it’s good service, as well. American, Delta and United all offer mostly reliable connections with American and Delta getting the most props from seasoned travelers. New planes and new technology means Wi-Fi speeds are improving too. Alaska Airlines plans to have fast Wi-Fi on nearly all its planes by the end of 2020. JetBlue has rolled out Wi-Fi on its entire fleet, though some complain about its capabilities. Same story with Southwest. Most major international carriers lag behind  the U.S. airlines. Notable exceptions are Icelandair, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic.

Wi-Fi screen on an AA 737-800 flight in 2016.

New Planes, Aircraft Tech

TPG’s managing editor, Alberto Riva, wrote about all the major changes in the aviation industry during this decade, especially the rise of the twin-engine long-haul aircraft. He also pointed to two airplanes that debuted in this decade: the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350. Be sure to check out his piece for more.

TOULOUSE, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 24, 2016: An Airbus A350-1000, Europe
An Airbus A350-1000, Europe’s largest twin-engined airliner, takes off for its maiden flight. (Photo by Marina LystsevaTASS via Getty Images)

Lie-Flat Business Class

The end of the decade also coincides with nearly all international flights going to fully lie-flat business-class seating … at least among the U.S. carriers. John Harper wrote about how we got here. American Airlines promised early in 2019 that it was eventually retiring its last Boeing 757 aircraft that don’t have lie-flat business-class seats. Some will apparently remain in the fleet until 2021, but won’t be flying many international trips. And many international flights also feature business-class seats with direct-aisle access. Look for that to spread like wildfire in the next decade.

Qatar-Airways-unveiling-ceremony-TPG-testing-lie-flat Brian Kelly
Qatar Airways unveiling ceremony: TPG tests lie-flat bed with Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, as model.

Premium Economy Push

One of the best trends in airline cabins is the spread of premium-economy seating. Airlines are increasingly offering these special cabins especially internationally. Bigger seats, nicer cutlery, amenity kits and better food are among the perks. Dia Adams wrote, “One of the biggest trends in aviation is the evolution of premium economy, which can mean anything from just extra legroom to a dedicated cabin with its own standards of hard and soft product.” Adams asked if these premium-economy upgrades were worth it. Her answers are here.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Basic Economy – Don’t Be

Don’t be basic. Many consumers are ignoring that advice and booking the relatively new basic economy fares. JetBlue just became the latest carrier to create this “new” fare class stripped of perks. Southwest is now the only U.S. carrier without basic economy. TPG travel analyst Zach Griff wrote about the phenomenon earlier this year:

 “In order to better compete with the ultra-low cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit (and simply generate more revenue), the airlines have gotten creative. Thanks to basic economy fares, the mainline carriers have more closely matched the fares of low-cost carriers by stripping out many of the inclusions you’d typically get with a regular economy ticket.”

Check out Zach’s complete guide to basic here:

New Fees For Everything

Continuing a trend that began in the aughts, airlines expanded charging fees for just about everything (not for bathrooms yet) and “unbundling” fares. That allowed them to make more money and gave, at least the pretense, of lower fares. TPG’s reporter, Victoria Walker, wrote about just how much U.S. airlines are bringing in (think billions) and how to avoid these fees here.

Credit Card Crackdowns

5/24. The dreaded language from Chase suggesting you can’t have opened more than five new credit cards in the past two years and still be eligible for new Chase cards (and the big sign-up bonuses). It’s just one of the many changes in the past decade that have made the hobby of points and miles more difficult. Many issuers now have limits on the number of cards and accounts you can have, and how often you can apply. The days of opening up to eight of the same kind of card on the same day are firmly in the past. Some issuers are even clawing back bonuses in crackdowns on what they call “churning.”

But there’s also been great news along with the challenges including bigger sign-up bonuses like the now-legendary Chase Reserve card debut. Ethan Steinberg recently compiled a list of all the top bonuses here.

The Road Ahead

So what’s the best way for you, the consumer, to survive and thrive amidst the growing power of the big travel companies?

If you’re a beginner start here.

And we promise to keep all of you abreast of all the news and how best to prosper as things continue to change.

Additional reporting from Dia Adams, Zach Griff, John Harper, Zach Honig, Brian Kelly, Richard Kerr, Melanie Lieberman, Alberto Riva, Ned Russell, Ethan Steinberg, Victoria Walker, and Zach Wichter.

Featured image from The Points Guy archives.

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