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September 17, 2009

Top 5 Rumors About the Future of Travel

Southwest-airlines
Southwest: Soon to touch down in Paris?
Photo: Jim Frazier on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

It's not as sexy as show biz or politics, but the airline industry generates its own share of wild rumors and bogus stories. And it's not hard to see why: The airlines themselves have pushed the boundaries of what is plausible; witness their creativity in concocting new fees (see rumor number 3, below). Sometimes we just want it to be true, as in the latest whopper this week: Über-discounter Southwest Airlines, famous for its spartan service on short flights, was said to be seriously weighing long-distance flights to . . . Europe!  South America!  Visions of its trademark $99 fares to Paris or Rio, though, were quickly dashed when the airline trashed the tale as "untrue."

So, what happened? A reporter for Air Transport World, a respected trade journal, interviewed a senior Southwest exec at a Beijing confab, and some vague remarks about international service morphed into an online "scoop." The magazine later backpedaled, and Southwest  made it perfectly clear that it has no interest in "long-distance international flying." (It may start international flights to Mexico, but that's hardly the same.) Seriously, it was pretty crazy when you think about it.  Southwest is a success because it's never strayed from its formula of single-class, no-frills flights using one type of aircraft, the narrow body 737; that's why it can offer low fares--and hire stand-up comics as flight attendants. Why jeopardize all that for the chance to lose a bundle overseas?

Read after the jump for some of the other most persistent rumors.

 #2: Airlines are planning "standing room" seats
This one has been around for ages: The New York Times once ran a correction of a front-page piece that reported that Airbus was touting the option of lashing fliers to flat panels so that airlines could cram more people into coach cabins. And it just won't die. A few months ago, Ryanair, the Irish discounter whose concept of service would make Southwest look lavish by comparison, said it was talking with Boeing about standing-room "seats" on short flights.  Chinese start-up Spring Airlines fanned the rumor by saying it had spoken with Airbus about the same thing, comparing it to what riders on the bus are used to (we kid you not). So, what gives? I asked both Boeing and Airbus to comment, and they said unequivocally that it would not happen, because it's inherently unsafe. In fact, many countries have toughened safety regulations for airline seats, which must now be strong and firm enough to withstand 16 Gs of force in a crash. But the airlines in question never retracted their statements, and a few weeks ago, some artists' renderings of what these new torture devices might look like popped up on the Internet.

#3: Ryanair is going to install pay toilets on its planes
Last March 5, we reported that Ryanair was in fact serious about the loo charge. The Irish discounter operates mostly shorter flights, but Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's famously impulsive chief exec, appeared to defend the idea by saying, "It will reduce unnecessary visits to the toilet that pisses so many passengers off on board a plane." That was after he'd first floated the idea and then had his airline PR department issue a denial. If his tactic is to keep us guessing--and to keep his name in the news--it's working. 

#4: A 1,000-passenger commercial jetliner is on the drawing board
This one sticks around because, let's face it, its no longer that far-fetched--the largest commercial plane in the world, the Airbus A380, could conceivably hold 800-plus people in a single-class layout. But no airline is putting more than about 500 people on those double-decker behemoths, and clearly, getting 1,000 people on and off a plane is never going to be a pleasant prospect (and in an emergency, the plane would have to be evacuated in 90 seconds).  Still, if demand picks up, expect to see this one given serious consideration.

#5: Richard Branson will install casinos/discos/health clubs/[fill in blank here] aboard his new planes
And, one rumor has it that the Virgin Atlantic founder will be giving massages to first-class passengers. Branson has also been a master of smirky references to the mile-high club when unveiling plans for "double bed" suites.  When he does take delivery of the A380, though, he'll have to come up with something good.

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