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Real ID Realness, Ongoing Boeing Max Drama, and the Great Biometrics Debate—Our Predictions for Air Travel in 2020

By Kristen Leigh Painter

12.19.19

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The year will be defined by technology, privacy, and the environment.

Photo by Patrick Daxenbichler/Shutterstock

The year will be defined by technology, privacy, and the environment.

As a new decade of aviation kicks off, what will be the defining moments and movements of the coming year?

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It’s the dawn of a new decade and 2020 looks up to the task of ushering in a new paradigm for air travel. The past decade was defined by a widening gap between the elite and cheap seats, resulting in more fragmented airfare classes, and major overhauls to loyalty programs in the postconsolidation era. The next decade is poised to present a reckoning for travelers and their relationship with technology, privacy, and the environmental and social impact of their globe-trotting ways. But before we get ahead of ourselves with 10-year projections, let’s look at changes coming down the pike during our next trip around the sun.

Will the flight shame movement take off?

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg did more than make a symbolic statement by sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to give a speech before the United Nations earlier this year; she threw a match on a long-smoldering debate over whether air travel is an environmentally responsible thing to do. The term “flight shame” has jumped the ocean from Sweden, where Thunberg’s climate-aware travel mind-set is already deeply rooted, to the United States.

With a strong economy and plentiful route schedules here, don’t expect a sudden drop-off in flights because of this heightened awareness. Instead, as people become more conscious of their air travel footprint, more pressure will be put on airlines to move beyond plastic-straw bans.

Many airlines already participate in carbon offset programs and offer customers the option of donating to programs that help reduce the carbon impact of their individual flights. But skeptics have questioned the veracity of these offset programs, and many travelers are changing the way they think about travel. The most climate-committed travelers are starting to take alternative types of transportation, such as trains. Other travelers are opting to take shorter, closer-to-home trips or are reducing the number of big international flights they take each year.

Real ID gets very real in 2020

After 15 years of prep, a series of delays, and getting state governments to slowly comply, the Real ID requirement at airports becomes official on October 1, 2020. On that date, all passengers must have the updated version of their state-issued identification card in order to clear U.S. airport security checkpoints under the Department of Homeland Security’s rules. There are, of course, other forms of identification that will still work, such as a passport or Enhanced Driver’s License, the latter of which is a Real ID–compliant state-issued driver’s license that also allows individuals to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean without a passport. But the majority of Americans rely on their standard driver’s license for domestic air travel and thus will need to make the change to a Real ID–compliant one.

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The problem is that as many as three out of four Americans may not yet have a Real ID, according to survey results released this fall by the U.S. Travel Association. While TSA has stepped up its public awareness campaign, citizens who don’t spend time reading travel articles or traipsing through airports where signs about the deadline are posted could be in for a rude awakening on their first domestic flight after the October 1 deadline. This could cause a crush of visitors to DMVs across the United States.

Ongoing Boeing Max woes could mean higher airfares

The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft has negatively affected many airlines, including Southwest, American, and United, for nearly a year. The news this week that the manufacturer is suspending production of the 737 Max only makes the situation more uncertain. Southwest, American, and United have removed the aircraft from their schedules through March and April, which will continue to result in reduced flight options for their passengers, according to Sara Rathner, a travel expert at personal finance company NerdWallet. “Consumers who haven’t made their [spring travel] plans yet should do so now, because fewer flights to choose from could mean higher prices and less convenient options,” she said.

Even before Boeing announced plans to halt production, global airfares were forecast to rise 1.2 percent in 2020. That’s if the economy remains stable and trade dynamics continue to improve, according to an annual forecast published by Carlson Wagonlit Travel and the Global Business Travel Association. The increases, or declines, will vary by region with air prices in North America estimated to grow the most at a predicted 2.3 percent compared to an anticipated 1.6 percent drop in airfares in Latin America.

Biometrics expand—and face their reckoning

The use of biometrics at airports is just ramping up, but the technology is positioned to experience exponential growth in 2020. Airlines, airports, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have worked together to champion its rollout, arguing that it’s a faster way to handle background checks of passengers passing through customs or boarding aircraft.

Earlier this month, the federal government looked as though it planned to take a giant leap forward with this facial recognition technology. CBP reportedly sought to expand its use by requiring that all U.S. citizens have their faces scanned upon entry and exit from the United States, whether they wanted to participate or not. But when media reports revealed those plans, the agency quickly backtracked, saying it would remain an optional method for American citizens.

The debate over passengers’ biometric data could very well come to a head in 2020. Many privacy experts and civil liberties advocates want Congress to put parameters around the Department of Homeland Security’s use of biometric data, and several legislators are vocal proponents of establishing stricter protocol for how and when the government can use biometric technology with U.S. citizens.

The fear with biometrics is that the government could start using people’s photographs for purposes other than initially intended, such as for law enforcement. The other concern relates to cybersecurity. And it’s a concern that proved valid this summer when a CBP contractor was hacked and images of 100,000 people crossing a U.S. land border were compromised.

“We’ve just seen so many failures in the ability to control large databases,” said Bob Mann, an aviation analyst based in Port Washington, New York. “As much as the people who run these programs think they have a secure method to handle the data, it’s not until after [a breach] when you realize your weaknesses.”

The rise of the “smart airport” and growing personalized travel tech

Apart from facial recognition, and other biometrics such as fingerprints and retinal scanning, airports and airlines in 2020 will increasingly explore new technology to make the travel process “more fluid, efficient and productive into 2020 and beyond,” according to the 2020 Global Travel Forecast by Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a travel management company.

This past year, for instance, United Airlines tested a new program called Connection Saver that uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to decide whether to hold a flight for a connecting passenger.

The program calculates a variety of factors—like the passenger’s likelihood of making it to the plane quickly without significantly delaying departure, and schedules of the passengers already onboard the aircraft—in determining if and when to place that hold. The airline’s mobile app then alerts the connecting passengers that the plane is being held on their behalf along with a map of how to get to their departing gate, essentially saying, “Hustle up, we’re waiting for you.”

While some ideas are closer to being implemented than others, innovations you can expect to either see or hear more of in 2020 include smart seats that can sense passengers’ anxiety and hydration levels and inform the cabin crew of ways to help make passengers more comfortable. There is also talk of sensors being placed throughout airports that could measure check-in and security times to help improve traffic flows and ideally speed up the process for travelers.

Rules harden for emotional support animals on planes

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is set to issue updated rules that better define the agency’s policies for service animals on commercial aviation flights by the end of 2019. The move comes a few months after the agency clarified its enforcement priorities for how airlines handle and treat passengers with service animals.

It’s a hot topic among passengers and airlines grappling with an influx of emotional support animals now being brought onboard flights. Complaints have escalated along with accusations of fraud, with airline staff and other passengers suspecting people of exploiting the government’s lax definitions in order to fly with their pets while avoiding the fees.

Veteran and disability groups have joined airlines and pilot and flight attendant unions in urging the government to tighten its requirements for animals on flights, citing the swell of untrained animals that have spoiled it for those with a bona fide mental or physical disability.

While no one knows exactly what the DOT will propose, it’s likely that getting an animal approved to fly will become harder in the coming year.

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