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Airline watchers predict less turbulence

Crowds examine the Boeing Dreamliner prototype at Boeing's Everett production facility. Despite delays, Boeing is not backing off its promise to deliver its first service-ready 787 to Japan's ANA late next fall. Associated Press
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Crowds examine the Boeing Dreamliner prototype at Boeing's Everett production facility. Despite delays, Boeing is not backing off its promise to deliver its first service-ready 787 to Japan's ANA late next fall. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Luggage may be no lighter and the gate agent may be no less rude in the new year, but 2008 promises improvements on several fronts for air travelers.

After more than a decade of expansive promises and hot sales, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner should actually fly. Airfield improvements at Chicago O’Hare should cut delays. And better X-ray machines may help airport screeners move the lines a bit faster.

Innovations that fliers will see in 2008 include:

Dreamliner to soar in ‘08

Europe’s Airbus got most of the plane-making attention this year with the introduction of its behemoth A380, the world’s largest passenger jet.

In 2008, it will be Chicago-based Boeing in the spotlight with the scheduled first flight and first delivery of its cutting-edge 787 Dreamliner.

The first test flight of the airliner is expected at the end of the first quarter of 2008. Despite production delays, Boeing is not backing off its promise to deliver its first service-ready 787 to Japan’s ANA late next fall.

Continental and Northwest, the only two U.S. carriers so far to order 787s, will take their first deliveries in 2009.

The 787’s advanced technology promises to make it a game changer. Its lighter body and advanced new engines will make it faster and at least 15 percent more fuel-efficient than the venerable Boeing 767, the wide-body jet it is replacing.

The 787, which carries up to about 300 passengers, should quickly become a common sight at U.S. airports. Boeing already has orders for more than 750 Dreamliners.

Boeing has put itself on a very tight schedule for testing and delivering the 787, which will be the first jetliner built mostly of high-tech composite material instead of aluminum.

The 787’s first flight already has been delayed up to six months by problems fitting together major pieces of the plane that are, in a first for Boeing, built by subcontractors all over the globe.

Treaty to aid Atlantic travel

For the first time, U.S. and European airlines will be able to cross the Atlantic next year without government-imposed limits on the places they may land.

For travelers, it will mean new flights, new routes and possibly new airlines after the old rules are dismantled in March. The new competition could eventually deliver lower fares.

The big changes come from the landmark Open Skies Treaty, which U.S. and European Union officials signed this year to spark competition.

The biggest impact will be seen at London Heathrow airport, where currently only four airlines — British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United and American — can fly nonstop to and from the U.S.

By April, Continental will serve Heathrow from Houston and Newark, N.J.; Northwest will fly there from Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Seattle; US Airways will fly there from Philadelphia; and Delta will fly there from Atlanta. Air France will also launch service between London Heathrow and Los Angeles.

To take advantage of the new authority to fly, British Airways is developing a subsidiary airline, which, for now, is called Project Lauren.

Security: Tighter, faster, better

Travel security promises to get more comprehensive and technologically advanced in 2008.

In a development that will affect passengers at the nation’s busiest airports, the Transportation Security Administration will broadly deploy new advanced X-ray equipment in checkpoint lanes.

Advanced X-ray provides clearer and more vivid images of what’s inside carry-on bags and allows screeners to see the contents from two angles instead of just one.

Both features give screeners a better picture of a bag’s contents and could speed up security lines by reducing the number of bags that have to be put through X-ray machines a second time or hand-checked by TSA staff after being X-rayed.

The machines are already in use at Reagan Washington National, New York John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles International.

The agency has purchased more than 200 of the $100,000 machines. They’ll be installed in 222 checkpoint lanes at the nation’s busiest airports next year. The technology is already used to screen checked luggage at a number of European airports.

Passengers at two of the busiest U.S. airports will also be getting closer examination — much closer — in 2008. So-called millimeter-wave and backscatter X-ray machines currently being tested at Phoenix Sky Harbor International will go into testing sometime next year at New York Kennedy and Los Angeles International airports.

The technologies create images of people’s bodies to look for hidden weapons. The millimeter-wave machine, which resembles a large phone booth, bounces harmless radio waves off a person as he or she stands inside for several seconds with arms raised. It produces black-and-white computer images that show the outlines of people’s undergarments. The machine being tested in Phoenix blurs passengers’ faces and instantly deletes the images. Screeners view the images from a remote room where cell phones are prohibited so that photos cannot be taken.

The U.S. government also will further tighten identification requirements from travelers entering the country from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Starting Jan. 31, adult Americans returning to the U.S. by land or via ferry or small boat must carry either a passport or a government-issued photo ID plus proof of citizenship, such as a birth or naturalization certificate. Those requirements already apply to travelers from those areas who arrive by air.

Children 18 and younger will need only proof of citizenship.

Cruise passengers are officially exempt, though cruise lines encourage passport use and already require photo ID and proof of citizenship.

Coming soon: Airborne and online

Surfing the Web at 30,000 feet should become a reality for some domestic travelers in 2008.

Several domestic airlines say they’re on schedule to offer in-flight Wi-Fi service next year, allowing passengers to browse the Web and send e-mail. But 2008 figures to be mostly a year of testing, and travelers are unlikely to be able to go online in large numbers until 2009 or after.

JetBlue got the competition rolling this month when it began offering a limited free e-mail and text-messaging service on one of its airplanes. If the test is successful, JetBlue plans to roll it out to the rest of the fleet.

American Airlines and Virgin America will use similar air-to-ground technology to begin in-flight Wi-Fi service in 2008, working with Colorado-based avionics firm Aircell.

Unlike JetBlue’s service, the airlines say their pay-per-day service will allow full-fledged Web-browsing. American’s service will be available on 15 of its Boeing 767s that fly transcontinental routes. Virgin America, with 12 planes, says it will offer it fleetwide.

Alaska Airlines is working with a small California technology firm, Row 44, to begin testing its Wi-Fi service, which will use satellites to transmit.

Although it hasn’t picked a technology partner, Southwest Airlines says it plans to begin testing Wi-Fi service on four aircraft in the second quarter of 2008. If the test is successful, Southwest will begin offering it on more aircraft later in 2008, said spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger.

New terminals, runways in the works

Chicago O’Hare expects to take a major step closer to its goal of reducing congestion when it opens a new runway in November. When it’s completed, the average flight delay is expected to be cut from 24 minutes to 16 minutes. The 7,500-foot runway, which runs east-west, will be used mostly for bad-weather arrivals.

One of the world’s most anticipated new terminals, London Heathrow’s $8 billion Terminal 5, is scheduled to open March 27. It will process about 30 million passengers annually and provide much needed room to ease congestion at Europe’s busiest gateway.

The new terminal will have more than 100 shops, ranging from British department store Harrod’s to American doughnut icon Krispy Kreme. In addition to the main terminal, the project features two satellite buildings, a new control tower, a 3,700-space parking garage and a 600-bed hotel.