After a Rocky Start to the Year, Experts Predict What’s Next for Air Travel in 2024

There will be more fliers and (hopefully) fewer delays and cancellations. But other aspects of air travel are less clear.

Shadowy model airplane on a flat surface

What is known and what are the unknowns for 2024? We asked insiders.

Photo by Justin Lim/Unsplash

In 2024, more of us, apparently, are resolving to take more trips by air. Or at least that was how it was looking before two back-to-back in-flight incidents kicked off the start of the year: the Japan Airlines airplane that burst into flames after a runway collision, and the Alaska Airlines plug door blowing out that led to the global grounding of Boeing 737-9 Max planes.

This year, despite some nervousness fliers may be feeling in the aftermath of said incidents, air travel volume is expected to reach “an historic high,” with 4.7 billion air passengers expected worldwide, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). That exceeds not just 2023’s total of 4.4 billion, but also the pre-pandemic 2019 total of 4.5 billion.

Airlines have “come roaring back to pre-pandemic levels of connectivity,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, adding that “the speed of the recovery has been extraordinary.” Looking ahead, 44 percent of those polled in a recent IATA consumer survey say that they will travel more in the next 12 months than in the previous 12 months.

In the United States, the story is similar, said Helane Becker, an airline analyst with investment bank TD Cowen, who noted that passenger volume at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints was up 11.6 percent in 2023, with an average of 2.3 million travelers daily—and that will rise at least 5 percent in 2024. Unless TSA adds more screeners, that could lead to longer airport lines. In peak periods “we will regularly see days when 3 million people travel through airports,” Becker said.

How will the recent safety scares affect operations? What does the higher number of travelers mean for airfares this year? And will we see additional operational struggles like the snafus that roiled holiday travel a little more than a year ago? We asked experts to weigh in. Here are their predictions for what flying will be like in 2024.

Air travel safety is being called into question amid Boeing 737-9 Max groundings

After a series of close calls at airports last year, air safety standards were already under the microscope in 2023. But when the new year began with two serious accidents, the Boeing 737-9 Max scare, which followed a crash at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, the issue became a front-page story.

After immediately grounding 171 Boeing 737-9 Max planes in the United States and in countries with direct flights to the U.S., the FAA on January 12 said that it would be increasing its oversight of Boeing production and manufacturing. The move came one day after the FAA said that it had “formally notified Boeing that the FAA has launched an investigation into the company as a result of last Friday’s incident on a Boeing Model 737-9 MAX in which the aircraft lost a passenger door plug while in flight.”

It’s unclear how long it will be before the 737-9 Max planes can return to service. Last week, United reported that it had found loose bolts on Boeing 737-9 Max airplanes during fleet inspections, furthering concerns.

The Alaska plane is not the same version of the 737 as the Max 8, which had two fatal crashes that prompted a nearly two-year worldwide grounding of the Max series starting in 2019. But given that it is part of the same aircraft family, the incident is raising some questions among travelers about its overall safety record.

“The outcome could have been a lot worse” if the Alaska aircraft had been at cruising altitude (about 34,000 feet), said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and an aviation safety consultant.

The head of NTSB, Jennifer Homendy, said at a news conference following the Alaska Airlines incident that the agency is going to pore over maintenance and safety records to determine the cause of the accident, which could take some time. But she also reassured the traveling public that air travel is safe.

“We have the safest aviation system in the world,” she said, adding that the United States “sets the standard for air safety” globally.

This issue—and the concerns it has sparked—isn’t going away anytime soon, and we can expect air travel safety to be top of mind for travelers and the industry for weeks and possibly months to come.

Airlines will fix operational woes—or face the consequences

No airline has gotten got a bigger black eye over flight snafus lately than Southwest—which, despite its mega-airline size, was tripped up in late 2022 during a weather-related meltdown by its antiquated technology, including a woefully outdated crew-scheduling system. The airline paid dearly for the mess, and not just in damage to its reputation; last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) socked it with a record $140 million fine.

But the implications for fliers go well beyond one airline: $90 million of the fine will go directly into a fund to compensate passengers who are delayed more than three hours, and industry watchers fully expect this three-hour rule will take effect across the industry. Consumer advocates say this signals a tougher stand on airline service issues that are clearly under the carrier’s control, including inadequate staffing to meet published schedules.

As Southwest CEO Bob Jordan told the Wings Club in New York last month (just as the DOT news was about to break), the airline has invested more than $1 billion in new systems that will not only help get crews to where they need to be but also enable the airline to better manage flights in bad weather. “Going forward, this is about running a great operation, and we will not stop working on it until we get it done,” Jordan said.

“The message is, if you don’t invest in the product, the consequences can be devastating,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. He predicts that the current leadership at DOT, “the most pro-consumer in U.S. history,” will be even more active on air passenger rights in 2024.

As part of that effort, DOT has signaled it will probe airline loyalty plans for evidence of “unfair and deceptive” practices, in response to a rise in complaints about changes in the award levels required to redeem tickets, among other things.

Don’t count on (much, if any) airfare relief

In 2023, as leisure travel rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, consumers got sticker shock as fares rose well above the rate of inflation—in some markets by as much as 15 to 20 percent—mainly because capacity was still down due to a lag in aircraft deliveries.

But heading into 2024, demand is still outpacing the number of available seats, and according to some experts, that situation may continue well into the year.

“Airfares are probably going to be higher [in 2024] because it simply comes down to supply and demand,” said Michael Derchin, a long-time Wall Street airline analyst who pens the newsletter Heard in the Hangar.

“Supply is tight and demand is high, and supply is tight for reasons that are totally out of the control of the airlines,” he said. And major aircraft manufacturers continue to have supply chain problems.

In addition, while most U.S. airlines are in the black, their costs are going up. Fuel prices have stabilized recently, but “the airlines’ single biggest cost by far is labor, accounting for about 40 percent of total expenses, and this year there’s been a significant increase in wages” thanks to airline unions’ success in bargaining for better pay and benefits, Derchin said.

The main takeaway: If you see a good flight deal, grab it. Prices aren’t likely to descend.

Hidden and ancillary fees don’t appear to be going away

Logic would dictate that if people are paying higher-than-expected prices, they should expect to get more for their money. Right? Not so fast, said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research.

Ancillary fees, such as baggage fees and additional costs for seat selection and other services—which have drawn much criticism from Congress and the Biden administration—“are here to stay,” he said. He noted that Alaska Airlines is raising the price of checking a bag from $30 to $35. “That has not increased in a while, and other airlines will follow suit,” he said.

Expanded international service

On the bright side, there will likely be more flight choices to destinations abroad in 2024. “Major airlines are adding international flights with a focus on restoring seasonal capacity and adding new flights to the Pacific region,” said TD Cowen’s Becker. She also cited what might be described as the Taylor Swift effect: major events that stimulate a lot of airline traffic. Watch for flights to fill up to the Paris Olympics this summer, and to destinations on the superstar’s international tour this year.

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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