September 11, 2011

The five-year anniversary of 9/11 is only a few days away, and while everyone else seems fixated on how the last five years have changed us, I think retrospectives are real yawnfests. A far more interesting question: What will it be like to travel on Sept. 11, 2011 — the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks?

Here are 10 ways in which I think travel will be different:

1. There will be only three “major” airlines. There’s been talk of industry consolidation for ages now, but the next five years could finally see it happen. The number of so-called “major” carriers — not including Southwest — currently stands at six. Two are flying under bankruptcy protection. But let’s not credit terrorists for that. The airlines were just badly managed.

2. Gasoline will cost $5 a gallon. I’m no Trilby Lundberg, but it doesn’t take an expert to say that gas prices are trending higher. Add a combustible Middle East to ever-rising demand, and you end up with gas at $5 a gallon — if not more.

3. The Registered Traveler program will be mandatory. The 8/10 liquids-on-planes crisis has given the Registered Traveler program new momentum — enough, I believe, to put it in every major airport within the next 24 months and even to make it mandatory for all air travelers by 2011.

4. There will be only two major online travel agencies. I think we’ll see one of the big three online travel agencies — Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity — get acquired by one of its competitors. The proverbial handwriting is on the wall. There seems to be little room for three online travel agencies in the marketplace. At no time has that been clearer than in the years after 9/11.

5. Everything — I mean everything — will be extra. Want to check in a bag on your next flight? That’ll be $20. Oh, wait, it’s over 50 pounds? That’ll be $50. Soft drinks: $5 a pop. Aisle seats? Another $20. Want advance seat assignments? That’ll be another $20. Bottom line: Airlines will charge extra for anything they can. Pillows, blankets, magazines — you name it. Hard times have turned airlines into penny-pinching Grinches.

6. Cruise lines will be subjected to stricter government oversight. Despite strong opposition from the powerful cruise industry lobby, the cruise business is begging to be regulated by the federal government. The companies that operate these enormous floating hotels have managed to escape most government control by registering their vessels in foreign countries and leveraging maritime law to their advantage. But the recent passenger security scandals promise to change that.

7. Some hotels will make more from merchandising than from their rooms. I’m even willing to bet that a major hotel chain will find that sales of bedding, clothing, towels, trinkets, food, beverages and other items not related to its core business of putting heads on beds will represent more of its revenue than money made from its rooms. Sounds absurd, but I think the travel industry’s move to commoditize everything makes it more than likely. Besides, a lot of guests would rather make their homes look like a hotel than pay the exorbitant room rates these properties now command.

8. There will be least two car rental company casualities. Sky-high gasoline prices and a shaky business model are going to force the car rental industry to consolidate. Don’t ask me for details — that’s way above my pay grade — but I would look for two familiar names to disappear or be merged into another company. Oh, and expect the government to crack down on practices such as overcharging for “damages” to rental cars. That’ll be a big story.

9. A one-day Disney World ticket will cost $100. The price currently stands at $67, which is a lot, but it’s not gonna stay there for much longer. I’m not making this prediction in order to pick on Disney, but to suggest that the price of a vacation is going to be much higher than it is now, what with higher fuel prices and several key businesses that are still struggling. Thanks a lot, terrorists.

10. And my ‘way-out-there” prediction for 9/11/2011 … I promise not to write a “Looking Forward to 2021” column because by 2011, I won’t be doing this anymore. Maybe I’ll go back to teaching diving or maybe I’ll raise chickens or publish a novel. Just please, not another 10 years of this!

What do you think travel will be like in 2011? Post your comments below, please.

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