Saturday, May 31, 2014

Canadian air travel changes: New planes, full flights, less service; From new high-tech jets to changing Transport Canada rules, air travel is evolving rapidly

The federal government recently announced two new rules that are set to change the way Canadians experience the evolving world of air travel.

Even for frequent flyers, there often seems to be something new at the airport on every trip — from check-in machines to baggage charges.

Here are five recent changes that have affected the airline industry, and five more that are on the horizon.

Change is in the air
1. Bigger, better jets

Air Canada recently showed off the first of the 37 Boeing 787 Dreamliners it purchased to great fanfare. The state-of-the-art jet is said to be quieter, lighter and 20 per cent more fuel efficient than its predecessors, while still carrying more cargo and providing a smoother ride for the some 300 passengers on board.

Porter Airlines, meanwhile, is hoping to fly the Bombardier CS100 (dubbed the whisper jet) in and out of the Toronto Island airport.

Add the gigantic Airbus A380 — currently only flying between Toronto and Dubai — and a host of smaller, sleeker jets and turboprops and you have a Canadian market served by some expensive new machines.

2. Fuller flights

If you think your odds of sitting next to an empty seat have gotten worse, you’re right. Rick Seaney, CEO of the Texas-based air travel site, says that in the last decade most airlines have gone from passenger load averages of 70 percent to over 90 percent.

Airlines once had a “grow or die” mentality, Seaney says, which led them to add as many routes and flights as possible, regardless of load. Today airlines are trying to maximize profits by squeezing passengers onto fewer flights. The partially full plane? “They’re done with that.”

3. Service goes slack

Bruce Cran, the president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC) and a frequent flyer himself, says the service on airplanes is getting “less and less acceptable,” for many Canadians.

“Airlines seem to be going for the absolute bare bones of what they can offer passengers,” Cran says.

The consumers' group fields a steady stream of complaints from flyers about everything from access to meals and drinks, to the abundance of passenger announcements. Cran says the group has even received complaints from people who fly business class.

4. Credit cards on flights

It might seem obvious, but the ability to pay with plastic while in the sky has changed the culture in the cabin.

“The role of the flight attendant has changed,” says Karl Moore, an aviation expert and professor at the Desautels faculty of management at McGill University.

As airlines try everything they can to make money, Moore says, flight attendants are increasingly tasked with selling both meals and duty free goods.

The ability to pay anywhere has also opened up what Seaney calls the “sushi menu” of flight amenities — like the ability to pay for an emergency aisle seat.

5. Paperless world

Mobile phones are driving change in the aviation world. Most airlines now email flight itineraries with embedded QR codes that can be scanned at the gate.

Meanwhile, a range of apps can provide instant updates on your flight status.

Even the customs areas have turned to self-serve terminals in some airports, forcing travellers to enter their passport and other data before ever stepping foot in front of an actual border security agent.

Changes on the horizon

1. Fewer flight attendants

Transport Canada plans to change its rules governing how many flight attendants must be on each flight from one flight attendant for every 40 passengers to one for every 50.

Flight attendants say the move puts passengers at risk in the event of an emergency, but federal officials say the change matches U.S. and European requirements. WestJet and Sunwing have already been granted exemptions to use the 1:50 ratio by Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt.

2. Electronic devices OK'd

Transport Canada also wants to eliminate that brief period of time you’re asked to stow electronic devices for takeoff and landing.

The transport minister called it "good news for air passengers and it's good news for the federal aviation industry."

Passengers will still have to switch their phones to flight mode, which turns off transmitting functions, but could theoretically type throughout takeoff if they like. It’s now up to airlines to change their cabin rules, something WestJet said it hopes to do by early summer.

3. Wi-Fi-enabled flights?

The technology ruling likely foreshadows the addition of in-cabin Wi-Fi, something that’s already commonplace on major U.S. airlines. Matt Nicholls, the editor of Canadian aviation magazine Wings, says it’s about time this country’s airliners caught up.

“You don’t want to be offering an antiquated service, because people won’t want to fly with you,” Nicholls says.

“I think this is a good thing for the Canadian airline industry.”

4. Onboard rules

Though Nicholls says the new rules surrounding technology will likely be well-received by Canadians, he cautioned they could be a “double-edged sword” for flight crews, who will have to change their procedures to deal with passengers more focused on their phones than important safety details.

The work of flight crews, he says, is “way more complicated than the general public even knows.”

Nicholls adds that Canadian airlines will have to be more proactive with their public relations if passengers are able to post on social media platforms mid-flight

5. Airports of the future

Many people dread airports. They’re expensive, full of lines and can be a nightmare to navigate. But some of the world’s most advanced airports might leave you pleasantly surprised.

Copenhagen Airport lets you plan your route through the airport using an online map featuring 360-degree views, and is hoping to use Google Glass to guide passengers to their gates in the future.

At major airports in Japan and South Korea they’re aiming to automate the flow of passengers to the point where there’s no longer a need for airport staff at all.

And in London’s Gatwick Airport, you can use a virtual grocery store run by Tesco supermarket to have food delivered to your home when you return. 

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