AUSTIN, Texas -- Call it the spring of uncertainty: The government says you can travel with little pocket knives, then decides no, you can't. Budget sequester trims air traffic controllers' hours, resulting in airport backups, then Congress restores schedules -- for now, anyway. Homeland security curbs airport security checkpoint overtime and says lines aren't longer, but some travelers report longer lines.
As we plan our summer trips, it's harder than ever to anticipate schedule quirks. But these things are certainties: Airplanes are being reconfigured with less room per passenger, fees are on the rise, and any hiccup in the weather is likely to strand passengers as airlines book every flight to the gills (and sometimes beyond the gills).
Let's take a look at how summer travel's shaping up, starting with the infamous sequester.
In April, furloughs hit the air traffic control system, and the effect was felt immediately, compounded by a windy sequester kickoff week. At New York's LaGuardia, for example, airplanes taxied around for an hour in Disney World-like zigzag lines, converging in a bunch on the runway to await their sequence. Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas also suffered significant backups.
It took barely more than a week for Congress to pass a quick temporary fix putting all the controllers back to work full time, but furloughs could hit again later in the year.
The Transportation Security Administration isn't enacting furloughs, but it is reining in overtime, and that could add some length to lines. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport already has blamed longer lines on TSA staffing, and it's not even summer yet. Customs is in the same overtime boat, and travelers are reporting lines of an hour or more coming back into the U.S. at some entry points, especially New York and Los Angeles.
If you're trying to get a passport, by the way, the State Department isn't reporting any delays right now in processing applications. However, it's always a good idea to apply several months in advance. Keep in mind that you need a passport to re-enter the U.S. from Canada and Mexico (or a passport card for a land-based crossing). There's more information on all that at travel.state.gov.
When you do get on that plane, you might be a little more squished than last summer if you get on an aircraft that's been reconfigured. Southwest, for example, started reconfiguring its 737s a year ago to get in six more seats. The result, for those of us in coach, is a slightly smaller pitch (the distance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of it) and a tad less leg room.
Also, seat-back pouches are so tight you can't fit anything bigger than a Kindle in there. American's new 737s and 757s feature the dreaded 31-inch pitch in coach, as well (although some seats have more leg room if you're willing to pay more).
Fees are heading skyward as well, with United, US Airways, Delta and American raising the fee for changing a ticket to $200. Frontier just added a fee for carry-ons that don't fit under your seat if you don't book on its website. George Hobica, president of the Airfarewatchdog fare information site, says he expects other airlines to follow suit. (A tip here: After you comparison-shop on aggregate sites, you'll almost always find the best fare on the airline's own site.)
Southwest and JetBlue remain the only airlines offering a free checked bag (two for Southwest) on domestic flights. Most airlines charge $25 each way.
Airlines are going fee crazy in self-defense. Ticket prices haven't come close to matching inflation. Every time fares go up, you can expect follow-up sales canceling out the increases, especially on competitive routes. Nonstop flights, of course, are always the best option because of the danger of missing a connecting flight and getting stranded, sometimes for days, because planes are totally booked or overbooked in summer.
All airfares, by the way, could go up later this year because of a proposed increase in federal taxes. If you're going to be traveling anytime this year, buy your ticket the next time a fare sale pops up on your favorite airline -- and for most of us, the favorite airline is now the one offering the cheapest flight. Loyalty is biting the dust with restructuring of frequent-flier programs, although American's is still easy to use if you book 330 days out.
About those knives: TSA was going to let you take small pocket knives, souvenir bats from the Louisville Slugger factory and other little sports implements onboard. That's been postponed indefinitely.
TSA's Precheck program continues to expand. It's an expedited screening program where you can leave your shoes and jacket on and speed through a special line. It's available to you if you're among the elite customers of the major airlines (typically business customers who pay top ticket prices) or if you sign up ($100 application fee) for U.S. Global Entry and pass a security check. There's more information at 1.usa.gov/SgS5at.