The Year In Air Travel: Packed Planes And More Perks — For A Price Commercial airlines earned nearly $20 billion in profits this year. They're using the cash to buy new planes, update facilities and add amenities — but not all of those new comforts will be free.
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The Year In Air Travel: Packed Planes And More Perks — For A Price

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The Year In Air Travel: Packed Planes And More Perks — For A Price

The Year In Air Travel: Packed Planes And More Perks — For A Price

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And things have been looking really good for the airline industry. The lower price of fuel is a big reason for that. Another reason, with the economy recovering, more people are getting on planes and flying, both for business and pleasure. So good year for the airlines, but as anyone traveling for the holidays this week will tell you, they are not passing their savings on to passengers. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: With many of us now taking off on a holiday break and the end of the year upon us, it's a good time to give out end-of-the-year grades. I recently asked frequent flyers going through Chicago's O'Hare airport what grade they'd give their airlines.

TANYA LAWSON: Well, I'd probably give them a B.

SCHAPER: Tanya Lawson is an attorney on her way home to Miami and says she doesn't have too many complaints. Lawson gives the airlines high marks for being on time for the most part. But she's not happy with everything.

LAWSON: I think comfort has gone out the window completely. Another airline I traveled on recently, my knees were too long, and I was in pain literally for the entire fight. And I'm only 5' 8".

SIDNEY MORAGNE: I'd give them a C.

SCHAPER: Sidney Moragne is a psychiatrist from Jackson, Tennessee.

MORAGNE: I'd give them a C. When it's bad, it's pretty bad. But a lot of times it's efficient. The planes are always pretty full now. That's one thing. You're packed in there pretty tight.

SCHAPER: And both Moragne and Lawson and others say they're tired of airlines charging for everything from extra baggage to extra legroom. As for the base fares, though, many travelers say they aren't too terribly high if you buy far enough in advance. But Moragne notices that while the price of fuel plummets, airfares are still up.

MORAGNE: They're not coming down, relatively speaking, the way gas has come down.

SCHAPER: Do you think they should? Or do you...

MORAGNE: Sure, they should. Yeah, they should. They're making profits.

SCHAPER: That's true. The International Air Transport Association estimates the world's airlines will rake in nearly $20 billion in profits this year. And the group expects that figure to soar to a record $25 billion next year. And with fuel making up close to half of the airlines' expenses, they are saving money. But the airlines say it's not as much you'd think. And the fuel price plunge comes after near record high prices. John Heimlich, chief economist for the industry group Airlines for America, says airlines are using their windfalls now to pay down debt, to give investors dividends for the first time in decades and to improve the flying product.

JOHN HEIMLICH: So we continue to see new aircraft coming into the system, facilities improving, a more stable, better-trained workforce in flight, you know, tablets, proliferation of Wi-Fi. And now you're seeing it in more international markets.

SCHAPER: But at least some of those amenities won't be free to all passengers. Airlines have begun offering far fewer cheap seats. And they're separating passengers into more classes, with each level you go up in price coming with a few more perks and comforts.

GEORGE HAMLIN: Bells and whistles are being added if you are paying premium prices.

SCHAPER: George Hamlin is president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting.

HAMLIN: I think it would be fair to say that the game here is pay-to-play. If you want the cheapest fare, don't look for the primo product.

SCHAPER: Looking ahead to 2015, Hamlin says travelers should continue to expect jam-packed planes and high fares. As demand for air travel continues to rise, recent mergers reduce competition, and airlines have reduced excess seat capacity to better match demand. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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