The year 2014 could be called a successful one for air travel or a depressing one, depending on your vantage point. On the whole, business class travelers enjoyed more space and amenities, while coach travelers paid more money for less legroom—leading a handful of passengers to really lose their cool. Profits soared for US air carriers, despite fears of a public health crisis and the effects of amped-up competition from other transatlantic carriers.
Here are some of the notable developments from around the globe that defined this year in air travel.
In one of the biggest aviation mysteries in history, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing with 239 passengers and crew members, spawning endless conspiracy theories. The crash of the airline’s Flight MH17 in violence-ridden eastern Ukraine (during a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over war-torn Ukraine) along with numerous public relations bumbles, dealt severe blows to the airline’s financial standing.
This year’s record Ebola outbreak, which has infected more than 8,000 people and resulted in more than 4,000 deaths, left governments and airlines scrambling for an apt response. Many major airports across the world took precautions and implemented mandatory screenings, including temperature testing, questioning, and checks for other symptoms. There was heated debate about the pros and cons of those measures, along with some public outrage. But neither fear nor screenings stopped air travelers from globe-trotting, according to a global travel industry survey and the airlines themselves.
Long-haul flying isn’t the money pit it used to be. Iceland’s Wow Air launched shockingly cheap transatlantic flights ($99!); Ryanair suggested it may follow suit; and budget airline Norwegian added more affordable transatlantic flights, thanks to its new fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner planes.
Rapidly-growing Middle Eastern and budget European carriers upped the ante for America’s legacy airlines this year. Southwest responded with a new look, while JetBlue diversified its food offerings, instituted bag fees, and crammed more passengers onto some flights. Delta launched a five-tier seating arrangement, including a budget option with no advanced seat selection, no refunds, and no changes.
Asian and Middle Eastern airlines may have the upper hand on comfort, but this year US airlines had it on profitability. The US overtook Asian and European carriers like Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa as the world’s most profitable commercial carriers, thanks largely to extra fees for perks like extra legroom, checked bags, flight changes, and, more recently, seat-shuffling. Airlines worldwide racked up $13.5 billion in revenue from non-ticket fees last year, more than 11 times non-ticket revenue six years ago.
Many airlines have spent the past year revamping and expanding their business class cabins for a more luxurious experience. Airlines like Etihad, Qatar, Qantas, and Virgin Australia, among others, are going all out to attract business travelers that now make up the bulk of their revenue. As for first class, airlines have either ditched the top tier altogether or blown those cabins out to attract the ultra-wealthy.
Despite low fuel prices (an airline’s biggest expense), ticket prices are rising. Airlines haven’t been passing along the savings to customers, especially for business travelers who are less sensitive to price and more constrained by when they travel. Higher fares are also helping to fund the largest jet-buying spree in aviation history. These newer planes help save airlines on fuel costs and offer passengers more amenities, which often means more fees implemented by the airline.
On a rolling basis, monthly air passenger numbers on all airlines in the US surpassed levels not seen since the Great Recession. The industry is lapping up international flyers from emerging markets and Americans shaking off recession-inspired cabin fever. The busy holiday season will offer an added bump—and probably a few more airplane fights.
Travelers got grumpier, especially the ones flying on crammed US carriers. In three separate incidents, airplanes were diverted mid-flight because of legroom-related scuffles. Offbeat gadgets like the Knee Defender, meant to guard personal space in-flight, became internet memes. And yet the airline industry didn’t flinch. As far as we can tell, life on an airplane will only get worse.