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2016: The year that was

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

This year was an eventful year in travel — at least in some aspects of travel. We saw some big developments in airlines and aviation, a few in rail travel, and depressingly little for consumers. My take:

Airlines

One of the three biggest airline deals in 2016 was approval by the Department of Transportation — finally — of Norwegian’s authority to operate to the U.S. using a subsidiary based in Ireland. The upshot for consumers: Lots more low-fare transatlantic flights, including to/from cities that don’t have such service now, starting with Providence and Newport/Stewart Field.

The second big deal, at least potentially, was completion of Alaska’s merger with Virgin America, resulting in the fifth largest in the country. Although the merger was completed financially, however, Alaska hasn’t shown its hand about how or even if it will combine the two operations. Lots of industry folks suggest continuing the Virgin brand and product, which makes some sense.

The third big deal was opening of Cuba for scheduled flights from the U.S. Airlines reacted immediately, scheduling flights to Havana and other Cuban cities from a handful of U.S. hubs. But a funny thing happened — those lines are having a tough time filling their flights, and they’re already cutting back on schedules and lowering fares.

In other important developments, United announced a new sub-economy fare, with completely nonrefundable tickets, no advance seat assignment, and even a charge for use of the overhead baggage bins. Delta already offers a comparable option, and American will surely follow.

DOT is finally taking a harder look at airline antitrust issues by tentatively denying immunity to the proposed American-Qantas partnership. Sadly, this comes much too late for consumers, given prior approval of the mergers that created today’s three giants, American, Delta, and United.

Airlines started taking delivery of the newest model planes in 2016, including the Airbus 350, a competitor to Boeing’s 787, and the re-engined A320 family. Both planes promise new point-to-point intercontinental flights, especially from the eastern U.S. and Canada to western Europe. Boeing will start deliveries of its competitive re-engined 737MAX in 2017.

Rail

Worldwide, the biggest rail deal of 2016 was official opening, in December, of the world’s longest rail tunnel, the 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland. It cuts the time of a Zurich-Milan express from 4:03 to 3:26 hours. Fortunately for travelers seeking great scenery, however, local trains will continue to operate over the old line.

In the U.S., the biggest development was probably the opening of the electrified heavy-rail commuter system from the remote Denver Airport to downtown Union Station last April. The one-way fare for the 23-mile, 37-minute trip is $9, compared with around $70 for a taxi.

The year saw nothing much from Amtrak, although the Midwestern states added a few miles of upgraded track that will allow Amtrak trains to travel up to 110 miles per hour for at least some segments of the routes from Chicago to St. Louis and to Michigan.

The biggest-dollar U.S. project, New York’s Second Avenue Subway, was inaugurated on Dec. 31, with revenue traffic slated for New Year’s Day.

Hotels

Although the merger of Starwood and Marriott was the industry’s biggest financial news, the consumer impact is confined to the combination of the two loyalty programs. Rates, facilities, and services of the many individual brands will remain as before, although you can expect to see a few hotels rebranded for greater consistency.

For consumers, the biggest news was adoption of policies by several big chains, including Hilton and Marriott, to limit special benefits, most notably free Wi-Fi, to bookings made through their own websites rather than third-party online travel agents. As I’ve noted before, this is just an early skirmish in the conflict between hotels and OTAs to “own” the customer.

Consumer Issues

One of the top travel consumer advocates I know called 2016 a “disaster” for consumers:

— Although DOT continued to examine the various “passenger protection” issues, such as fare displays made available to third-party OTAs and metasearch systems, it issued no new rules.

— Despite making noises about possibly taking action, the Federal Trade Commission did nothing to curb deceptive hotel pricing.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at rail-guru.com.)

(c) 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC. — Tribune Content Agency — December 27, 2016

Ed Perkins is a nationally syndicated travel columnist, with weekly columns appearing in three dozen U.S. newspapers. He was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter and has written for Business Traveller (London), Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, The New Yorker, and National Geographic Traveler.

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