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New Flight Routes, New Airplane Cabins, New Disney Pricing: The View from AFAR

Plus: bag fees begone (there's a catch) and Coppola joins forces with Backroads

The airline industry was flying high (see what we did there?) in the world of travel this week, with a host of new routes on a variety of carriers, news about bigger overhead bins, a potential revolution in seating arrangements, and a possible shortage of air traffic controllers. (Oh, and flight attendants delivered a baby at 35,000 feet. NBD.) Of course there was other news, too, and we’ve compiled the best of all of it here. Remember, if you have any questions about what you read in this column, Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia. 

Disney Parks weigh dynamic pricing
Depending on when you plan to visit, admission fees at the biggest Disney Parks in Florida and California might get a whole lot more expensive in 2016. The Walt Disney Company acknowledged this week it is considering a shift to dynamic pricing—that is, pricing according to demand. Under the structure Disney is considering, admission fees would be lower during weekdays, winter, and other off-peak times and higher during weekends, school vacations, holidays, and busy times. Details on the new plan (and what form the changes will take) are fuzzy, and Disney has not gone on record explaining what is driving the switch. Still, most reports indicated dynamic pricing is inevitable. Especially for families, the impact of these pricing changes would be significant: In order to avoid spending hundreds of dollars of surcharges, travelers may have to get smarter about when they plan to see the Mouse. 

New flight routes galore
A host of new flights and flight routes were announced this week. Here in AFAR’s home market, Air India said it will begin the first-ever nonstop flights between San Francisco and Delhi on December 2.  The route spans more than 7,500 air miles and lasts more than 16 total hours (which, believe it or not, is about 900 miles and two hours shorter than the world’s longest flight—Newark to Hong Kong, for you trivia hounds). Farther afield, Norwegian Air said it would be launching a variety of new low-cost options, including Las Vegas to Copenhagen and Stockholm; San Juan to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and London Gatwick; and Boston to Copenhagen, Oslo, and London Gatwick, to name a few. (As an aside, by May 2016, Norwegian will offer 34 non-stops from the United States to London Gatwick and Scandinavia—more than any other European airline.) 

Changes and potential changes to airplane cabins
Airplane cabins soon may look different after two pretty major developments this week. The first news item concerned overhead bin space: Boeing announced it will start building larger bins to accommodate more carry-on bags. These new bins, nicknamed “Space Bins,” will appear in all new Boeing 737s, and should increase carry-on capacity by roughly 60 bags, or about 50 percent. The good news: Possible cost savings. If overhead bins hold larger carry-ons, travelers can fit more in each of their bags, potentially reducing checked-bag fees completely. The bad news: The bins will hang two inches lower into the seating area, meaning less headroom overall. Passengers can expect new planes from Alaska Airlines, Delta, and United to have the new bins first; a total of seven airlines have committed to converting their fleets over to planes with the new bins over the next few years. The second item pertaining to airplane cabin changes had to do with seating: Airbus has proposed stacking seats to fit in more passengers on long-haul flights. According to a report in The Dallas Morning News, Airbus filed a patent with the European Patent Office and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for split-level “mezzanine” seating where passengers would be placed practically on top of one another. The new configuration, which would be applied in business class cabins, effectively would create bunk-bed style seating; passengers on the upper level would use ladders to ascend and descend to their seats. In another similarity to bunk beds, seats in the new layout would lie flat. 

Free bags for ads
Tired of paying fees for checked bags? (We sure as hell are.) Here’s another option: A new company started by a former Continental Airlines flight attendant is set to foot the bill for bag fees for travelers who agree to use the company’s luggage, which is covered in ads. The company, Orion Travel Tech, expects to launch the new service next month, and is so confident it will be successful that founder Gary German has waived the signup fees. An article on Today.com this week detailed how the company works; in a nutshell, once a traveler signs up, he or he receives two $300 hard cases—one carry-on, one bag for checking—enrobed in advertisements. In exchange, Orion provides travelers with a rechargeable $50 gift card. The program also gives travelers access to some airport lounges, and equips each bag with a GPS and luggage-tampering alert system. If soccer teams can have ads front-and-center on their jerseys, why can’t travelers, too?

Air Traffic Controller shortage
The Federal Aviation Administration is running out of air traffic controllers. That was the gist of an Associated Press article this week that detailed a “chronic shortage” that could reach a “crisis that will lead to widespread flight delays if left unchecked.” The story, by Joan Lowy, cited sources from the union that represents controllers saying the number of "certified professional controllers" has declined 10 percent from the recent peak of 11,753 in September 2012. Lowy’s sources also indicated that of the 10,859 certified controllers who remain, 30 percent are currently eligible to retire. According to Lowy, to date the most notable effect of the controller shortage has been chronic fatigue among those who are working six-day weeks. For our sake, without making obtuse references to “Pushing Tin,” let’s hope this is the worst of it moving forward. 

Meadowood unveils new spa
Napa Valley’s Meadowood, one of the most luxurious resorts in northern California, is set to open a brand new spa early next month, the last step in a $60-million renovation that has spanned four years. Instead of traditional treatment rooms, the new spa will comprise eight treatment suites, each of which boasts a private bathroom and steam shower. There also will be separate relaxation gardens, steam rooms, saunas, and mineral soaking pools for men and women; two boutiques; and special spa culinary menu from Meadowood Grill Chef Victoria Acosta. Overall, the Howard Backen-designed spa will be accented with artisanal touches such as a silk rug from Tibet and handmade pottery from the Napa Valley. Product lines associated with treatments will include Caudalie, Luzern Laboratories, HydraFacial MD, Glycelene, and Aromatherapy Associates. Services begin at $225 and packages range from $595-$1,235. 

New joint trips from Coppola, Backroads
Guests on Central American multisport trips from Backroads soon will stay at two eco-friendly resorts from the Family Coppola Resorts, a hospitality company owned by acclaimed movie director Francis Ford Coppola. The resorts, Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize and La Lancha in Guatemala, are special for different reasons—Blancaneaux is in the middle of a jungle and pine forest, while La Lancha looks down on Lago Peten Itza. Most of the trips that incorporate the new lodges span seven days and six nights, and comprise activities such as biking, hiking, canoeing, swimming, snorkeling, caving, and bird-watching. Most of the trips also include a visit to Tikal National Park, a complex of ruins (and World Heritage Site) that dates back to Mayan times. Prices start around $3,000 per person. 

New train to the heart of Scotland
With a new James Bond movie opening next week, we can’t help but think about Scotland, the nation where 007 grew up. Fitting, then, that a new rail line opened last month in the Scottish Borders, the part of the country just north of the border with England. The line, dubbed Borders Railway, re-establishes a 30-mile route from Edinburgh to Tweedbank that was closed in in the 1960s. The region has not had rail service since then. Trips glide past medieval abbeys (including Melrose Abbey) and Roman ruins, as well as the rolling hills of the Scottish countryside. Of course there’s great history in both Edinburgh and Tweedbank, too. For a great perspective on the trip, check out Norman Miller’s recent travelogue for BBC Travel. Fares between Edinburgh and Tweedbank start at £10. 

Good reads
Few writers skewer bad behavior as well as Zach Everson. Earlier this year, he pulled the pants off a mean-spirited campaign to shame passengers who bring oversized carry-ons on board planes. This week, he was at it again, publishing an essay detailing the hypocrisy in Skift’s stance on hate-shaming readers to act. In the piece, Everson details how Skift has lashed out at travel brands for guilting passengers into purchases. He then provides irrefutable evidence of Skift engaging in the very same practices. If nothing else the piece will make you think twice about which buttons you click online.

Sometimes one plane flight can change our lives. Author John Krich learned this first-hand few years ago on a fateful flight to Lisbon that changed his life. In an open and honest essay for BBC Travel, Krich explains how he met his wife on the flight, and details the whirlwind courtship that ensued. At times the piece veers into TMI, but it manages to remain charming nevertheless. Still, I can’t help but wonder: If BBC is publishing this piece now, what could they possibly have left for Valentine’s Day? 

Spotlight: McMenamins Anderson School opens
One of my absolute favorite hospitality brands in the United States is McMenamins—a brothers-run Pacific Northwest company known for taking everyday properties such as farms, theaters, and schools and turning them into hotels and restaurants with character. The brothers’ latest endeavor—a rehabilitated circa-1931 school outside Seattle, opened to the public this week. The project, the Anderson School, was a junior high, an alternative school, and district offices before Mike and Brian McMenamin bought it in 2009. The new iteration has 72 rooms with private bathrooms, a small brewery, a movie theater, and a full-size pool that has been renovated to look like a tropical lagoon.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.