• Demand for airline travel is expected to become stronger as the holiday season draws closer, so booking early will ensure a ticket at a reasonable price.
  • Multiple airline company mergers and the temporary removal of the Boeing 737 MAX from service will reduce airline choices and likely impact seat availability.
  • While ticket prices may be slightly lower, additional baggage and convenience fees will quickly add up for consumers.
  • Plan ahead and be flexible to anticipate sold-out flights and flight schedule changes. Booking flights departing early in the day may reduce the likelihood of delays.
  • Early check-in will ensure that if an airline overbooks seats, you will not be bumped from the flight. If bumped, travelers are frequently entitled to compensation.

Newswise — Wichita State's Dean Headley, co-author of the Airline Quality Rating, says travelers should book their holiday air travel early this year.

Book your holiday air travel as early as possible (at least eight weeks if possible). Airline prices are holding steady, but with limited seat availability and strong demand seats will fill quickly. That's the advice from Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating (AQR) co-author and emeritus professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

Demand for airline travel has been strong in 2019, and that demand is expected to remain strong through the holiday travel weeks around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Travelers on U.S. airlines during the holidays usually find that ticket prices are slightly higher closer to the holidays, so booking early is highly recommended to ensure your travel plans.

While industry airline performance quality has been holding steady for the past few years, the travel experience remains stressful and often uncertain. The holidays only add to the stress levels. Higher passenger volumes and the possibility of bad weather should always be factored into holiday travel plans.

“During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industrywide seat capacity issues due to the Boeing 737 MAX being taken out of service, and the possibility of bad weather, the holiday traveler must be watchful and well-informed to minimize an already stressful travel experience," said Headley.

"December and January typically have the worst on-time arrival percentage and mishandled baggage rates of any month. The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes, either planned or unplanned," said Headley.

The industry overall

Looking back, 2018 was a good year for airline performance. Actually, 2018 was the best in the past 26 years. The months of January and December of any year are usually the worst for airline performance. Winter months consistently see poorer industry performance because of higher passenger volumes and the greater likelihood for bad weather.

"Data shows industry performance scores generally improving from year to year," said Headley. "We are settling into a reduced carrier system that challenges travelers to be savvy. With strong demand for fewer seats and fewer airline providers, it presents an opportunity for the airlines to perform better. It also decreases the recovery options if something goes wrong with planned travel."

In 2018, the best-performing airlines across the combined AQR categories were Delta, JetBlue and Southwest. Hawaiian was best in on-time performance. Delta was best in avoiding denied boardings. Spirit was best in baggage handling. Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints.

The worst-performing airlines across the combined AQR categories in 2018 were Frontier, American and Spirit Airlines. Frontier had the worst on-time performance and worst rate for denied boardings. American had the highest rate of mishandled baggage. Frontier also had the highest rate of customer complaints.

What's ahead?

According to Headley, airline mergers and consolidation continue to add new dynamics to the industry and generally shrink consumer choice options. The success of these new blended carriers in combining operations remains a work in progress. Add to that the Boeing 737 MAX being taken out of service for airlines that use that aircraft, and you have a potential for seats and/or routes to be unavailable.  

"If you look at past AQR data (http://airlinequalityrating.com), you will find that combining two very large airlines does not necessarily result in improved performance, and usually takes several years to settle out," said Headley. "Mergers brought performance problems and took longer than predicted to accomplish. Recent mergers have learned from earlier efforts, but it still takes time to fit all the new pieces together. Passengers often are confused and unhappy during this adjustment period."

Airline fees for added services are a reality, so consumers need to be aware and plan for the added costs that their choices might bring. Unbundled services available a la carte are significant revenue producers for airlines that have proven essential to airlines bottom-line profits. Only about 75 percent of airline industry revenues comes from fares. The other 25 percent comes from other sources like seat upgrades, baggage fees, reservation change fees and food sales.

"Ticket prices may appear to be reasonable to slightly lower, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up," said Headley. "A year ago, the average price was $380, but with $55 in fees for checked bags, carry-on bags and seat assignments, that ticket seems noticeably more expensive. At holiday time, when the travel involves tickets and fees for an entire family, the costs add up quickly. At some point, a traveler needs to make the call as to whether that holiday air travel is worth the price and the hassle."

Some tips

  • Be flexible in your travel plans to get the lowest fare. The best deals may be limited to travel on certain days of the week (particularly midweek or Saturday) or certain hours of the day (e.g., early morning flights or overnight "red eyes.") Plan as far ahead as possible. Flights for holiday periods may sell out months ahead of time, although in many cases you can find a seat if you elect to travel on the holiday itself, e.g. Christmas Day or Thanksgiving Day.
  • Using a travel agent can help explore the options available. A small fee up-front is often worth it when plans go wrong. Having an experienced travel agent on your side can help de-stress the situation and save the day.
  • When selecting a flight, remember that a departure early in the day is less likely to be delayed than a later flight, because of "ripple" effects throughout the day. If you book the last flight of the day, you could get stuck overnight. Allow plenty of time to make connecting flights. Leave extra time between connections if possible, just in case flights are delayed and flight schedules get changed.
  • If you have a choice between two connections and the fares and service are equivalent, choose the one with the less-congested connecting airport. This reduces the risk of misconnecting. Also consider potential adverse seasonal weather when choosing a connecting city.
  • Consider paying by credit card, which provides certain protections under federal credit regulations. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days.
  • As soon as you receive your itinerary / confirmation, check to make sure all of the information on it is correct, especially your name, the airports (if any of the cities have more than one) and the flight dates. You will need to show a government-issued photo I.D. when you fly. It is important that your name as it appears on the ticket is the same as it appears on the I.D. you will be using.
  • Airlines don't guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip. Re-check the departure and arrival times of your flights a few days before your trip; schedules sometimes change.
  • Certain items should never be put into a piece of luggage that you plan to check in to the baggage compartment. Small valuables, cash, credit cards, jewelry or expensive cameras should not be placed in checked baggage. Critical items such as medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers, manuscripts, heirlooms and fragile items such as eyeglasses, glass containers and liquids are things that should be carried on your person or packed in a carry-on bag. Pack as light as possible. Ship packages or luggage ahead of time so last-minute schedule changes don't put your belongings at risk of being lost.
  • At final check-in, verify that the agent checking your bags attaches a destination tag to each bag. Check to see that these tags show the three-letter code for your destination airport.
  • Check in early (as early as 24 hours is allowed online). You can lose your entire reservation if you are not at the gate 10-15 minutes before scheduled departure time on a domestic flight (longer on international flights). If a flight is oversold, the last passengers to check in are the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadlines.
  • Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for no-shows. Passengers are sometimes left behind or bumped as a result. If you're not in a rush to arrive at your next destination, you can voluntarily give your reservation back to the airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight. But before you do this, you may want to get answers to some questions like: When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm your seat? If the original airline re-booking is unacceptable, will they re-book you on another airline? If you need to stay overnight, will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a hotel room, transfers between the hotel and the airport, and a phone card? Before agreeing to accept a travel voucher as compensation for being bumped, ask about restrictions. Many vouchers have blackout dates during peak periods.
  • If you are bumped involuntarily, the Department of Transportation requires each airline to give all passengers bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights, and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly as scheduled, are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay.
  • For more information about how airlines perform, more travel tips, and advice about flyers rights, go to http://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer.
  • Given the stress of travel and the airlines efforts to fill every seat on every flight, manners and consideration for other travelers’ shared space needs to be part of the traveler's holiday spirit. Being a self-reliant, informed and prepared traveler is your best protection against the hassles of travel by air.

    The national Airline Quality Rating for 2020 (covering the performance results of 2019) will be released in spring 2020.

    Visit the Airline Quality Rating website

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