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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/17/2008 1:58:05 PM ET 2008-04-17T17:58:05

The turbulent economy isn’t keeping Americans from flying. According to travel expert Terry Trippler, president of TripplerTravel.com, bookings for summer travel are strong.

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Some people may have to switch vacation destinations — going to Orlando instead of Paris — but he says they still plan to fly there.

Earlier this week, I flew from Seattle to Minneapolis. I felt like a sardine packed into that 737-300. There was just one empty seat on the plane. Welcome to the crowded skies. Many fights are already full. Some are oversold. And the start of the busy summer travel season is still more than a month away.

"It is going to be a 'love thy neighbor' summer because you're going to be sitting beside one on the plane,” Trippler says. “We're going to have a lot of planes 100 percent full. Summer travel domestically looks very good. Considering how the euro is killing the U.S. dollar, international travel is holding up very, very well. The bottom line is Americans just won’t stay home.”

I met Trippler in his Minneapolis office to talk about what summertime travelers can expect.

Q: With the planes so full, it seems like if anything goes wrong this summer, from bad weather to an air traffic control problem, it’s going to mess up the system for days.

It really is. If a flight gets cancelled there may be 150 people on that plane. The airline wants to put you on the next flight, but the next plane with space available may be two or three days away. There are going to be times this summer that your flight is cancelled and you might be better off to just call up the airline and say, "Forget it, I’ll go next month."

I strongly recommend people plan for this. If you have to be to work on Monday, come home on Saturday. If you have to be at that groom's dinner on Friday night, go on Wednesday night. You can’t cut it too close anymore.

Q: What about people who can't make up their mind? Do I book now for summer travel or do I wait?

You book now. Fuel is going up. Airfares are going up. They’re not going to come down. If fuel prices drop, the airlines are not going to cut the fares. So buy now. If you know when and where you're want to go this summer, buy it. If you know where you want to go for Thanksgiving, buy it. If you know where you’ll be at Christmas, buy it. There may be a few sales during the year, a small sale here or there that knocks maybe 5 percent off the ticket price, but there will not be any storewide clearance sales.

Q: It’s a long flight from Seattle to Minneapolis and I didn’t want to get stuck in a center seat, so I bought an aisle seat. Twenty-four hours before departure, Northwest sells some choice aisle and exit row seats. On my flight it was $25 for an aisle seat and $35 for an exit row seat. Is Northwest Airlines making much money doing this?

They’re making a ton of money. And this is one thing that the new Delta (the merged Northwest and Delta airlines) will pick up on — how to price aisle and exit seats.

Q: Are we going to see more of this kind of thing?

Yes. We're probably going to see just about every airline doing something like that. It has become a tremendous revenue source for them. United Airlines now has their Premier Plus coach seats. Pay a little more and you get more leg room. You're going to see more and more of that.

When you think about it, you pay more to have a better seat at a ballgame, you pay more to have a better seat at a concert, why shouldn't you be willing to pay more? And I'm willing to pay more, to have a better seat on a plane.

Q: Airlines are selling meals, renting entertainment systems, and starting May 5, most passengers with an economy fare on United, Delta, Northwest, U.S. Airways and Continental will pay $25 each way on a roundtrip ticket to check a second bag. What’s that all about?

The airlines are looking for every possible way to knock weight off those planes. And they’re looking for every possible revenue source. If Northwest could drop 25 pounds off of every plane, it would save $400,000 a year in fuel costs. Think about that. If fuel prices keep climbing, we may see them charge for the first bag.

Q: The already sell coach passengers meals and snacks. What’s next, charge for the beverages?

I think a buck for a can of soda is right around the corner.

Q: So what’s really going on here?

I call it ala carte ticketing. When you buy a ticket, you get a ticket from point A to point B. If you want anything else, you can pay for it. It's not so much, 'You get what you pay for.' It's, 'You pay for what you want.'

Crossing the pond
There is one bright spot — for those headed to Europe. Thanks to the new open skies agreement, airlines can fly between the U.S. and Europe without getting approval from any government agency. They just need a plane and a place to park it at an airport.

Trippler says this means more seats to Europe. The extra capacity will mean more options for travelers. It also should help keep a lid on price hikes.

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