AIR travel was big news in 2014, but for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of hearing about the development of innovative aircraft, the addition of new routes and improvements to customer service, the headlines were dominated by the loss of two Malaysian Airline planes with the occasional story about plunging profits and staff cuts.
While airlines around the globe are ready to make changes in 2015 that will improve the travel experience for passengers, aviation experts predict those taking to the skies will continue to feel the shock waves of the MH17 loss well into the following year.
Geoffrey Thomas, editor of AirlineRatings.com and a regular on CNN after MH370 disappeared in March, said the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines 777 over the Ukraine in July would change the way airlines and aviation authorities managed flight paths above conflict zones.
“Airlines will be more vigilant where they fly in 2015 and that could mean higher fares, longer flight routes, and a little more inconvenience,” he said from his base in Perth.
“Passengers will demand to know where they are flying, and that flights not cross war zones, and it will force airlines to navigate a delicate road between increased security and inconvenience.
“That whole area (between South-East Asia and Europe) is pitted with countries that are a problem – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, even Egypt and Israel – and flight paths meander from one into another, while going around these places adds pressure to the bottom line.
“There are safe tracks, we have been flying over Afghanistan for the past 10 years without problems, but this shoot down adds a frightening new dimension, which will make airlines and governments more vigilant about sharing intelligence.”
While safer skies will be a priority next year, occasional travellers will notice changes in the cabin like gate-to-gate connectivity – passengers will be able to use mobile devices during the whole flight rather than just between ascent and descent – and the proliferation of modern aircraft like Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350.
Qatar Airways will take delivery of the A350, which is the Airbus answer to the celebrated 787, with the first plane expected to join the company’s fleet before Christmas. Boeing has increased production on the Dreamliner to 10 a month to meet existing orders.
Domestic and international airlines are planning to improve the flight experience for passengers by upgrading aircraft interiors, with Singapore Airlines leading the charge by adding a premium-economy cabin to its fleet of 777-300ERs and A380s during the second half of next year.
While details of the new cabin haven’t been released, Singapore Airlines said the premium-economy product would feature “more space, amenities and convenience” with seating and service being “sufficiently unique from both economy class and business class”.
“Refreshing cabins is a high priority for airlines, especially in the premium cabins, and I see premium economy as a sleeping giant,” Thomas said.
“As legacy carriers try to compete with low-cost carriers on price, they are squeezing the economy cabin more and more and, as they do, passengers are saying they don’t want to pay the lowest fare but are happy to pay a little extra to get better legroom and better service which is making premium economy a growth market.”
Premium economy won’t be the only modification to the Singapore fleet in 2015, with new first, business and economy seats and improved in-flight entertainment planned for the 777-300ERs currently in service as part of a $325 million upgrade.
Singapore Airlines spokeswoman Bryony Duncan-Smith said improving onboard comfort would be a consideration for many airlines next year.
“The new battle line in servicing savvy customers is all about the detail, from lighting and in-seat power to storage and ergonomic design,” Duncan-Smith said.
“That’s why we turned to experts like BMW subsidiary DesignworksUSA to integrate these key features into great design for our new seat, and our newest cabin products are well suited to the Australian market with more space and comfort.”
Australia’s domestic carriers will also dedicate funds to cabin renovations in 2015 with fierce competition between Qantas and Virgin Australia forcing airlines to standardise in-flight offerings so passengers can expect the same features.
The Flying Kangaroo will refit its 737-800s, considered to be the workhorse of the domestic fleet, so every plane has personalised in-flight entertainment regardless of when it rolled out of Boeing’s Seattle factory.
“We are investing in future improvements to the interior of our 737-800 aircraft to improve the in-flight experience of our customers and provide more consistent access to on-demand entertainment,” Qantas domestic chief executive officer Lyell Strambi said.
“While 29 of our latest 737-800s already have in-flight entertainment for each passenger, the refurbishment will see wireless Q-streaming entertainment installed on the 38 remaining aircraft to supplement the screens that fold down from the ceiling.
“This will allow customers to stream on-demand TV, movies and music direct to laptops, tablets and smartphones (and) use portable devices in flight mode through the entire flight.”
Qantas has also announced changes in capacity on international runs by increasing the service between Melbourne and Los Angeles from daily to 10 flights a week, adding an additional Sydney-Santiago hop to offer four a week, and increasing seats on the Sydney to Honolulu run by upgrading to the newer A330.
From June 1, Etihad added daily flights between Abu Dhabi and Brisbane on the Dreamliner – replacing the existing one-stop service currently calling at Singapore – as well as expanding its network by including Kolkata in February, Madrid in March, Entebbe in May and Edinburgh in June.
British Airways will start jaunts from London Gatwick to Sardinia, Rhodes, Crete and Bodrum in April 2015 while Cathay Pacific is set to start flying between Hong Kong and Manchester later this year and to Zurich next March.
TripAdvisor’s regional director of flights Andrew Wong said that, as well as introducing new destinations and streamlining capacity to match demand, airlines would strive to minimise connection times in 2015.
“This is always a priority for airlines as travel agencies and online ticket sellers rank flight options not only by price but by travel time,” he said.
“An itinerary becomes more attractive when flights leave at convenient times and connecting time is minimised and, with many long-haul flights from Australia requiring a connection in Asia or the Middle East, airlines consistently compete not only on price but on connecting times and experience.”
Wong predicted Australians would also benefit from the introduction of additional low-cost carriers into the Australian market next year, a move that would boost the list of destinations available to leisure travellers seeking discounted fares.
“Low-cost carriers will continue to grow in 2015,” he said.
“Some 10 new low-cost airlines, particularly from South-East Asia, plan to be flying to Australia in the next 18 months and that’s good news for consumers because it will give new route options and cheaper prices to Australians in 2015.