The headlines tell us that this has not been a good year for airline travelers -- tales of passengers being forcibly removed from planes before taking off, others stuck in blistering hot cabins while waiting on the tarmac and some being told, after paying extra for their seats, that they must move to a different, less-desirable location, perhaps adjacent to a restroom.
Beyond the headlines, this year also has brought a "perfect storm" for travelers to find more convenient -- and often cheaper -- flights from the United States to Asia and to Europe, as well as new services pushing into Mexico and South America. In short, more cities are being served, and rock-bottom airfares (if you can get them) are frequently cheaper than the cost of many domestic flights.
"It is perhaps the biggest travel sale in years -- and one that could extend through 2017," wrote travel journalist Peter Greenberg earlier this year.
For trans-Atlantic travel, a host of new players has entered the U.S. market in the past few years, bringing long-established -- though little-known -- airline names to American airports, as well as new, upstart carriers, such as XL Airways, Level, WOW Air and industry trend-setter Norwegian Air Shuttle. Together they are changing the fundamental dynamics of how the airline industry operates in a direct challenge to so-called legacy carriers such as United, American and Delta.
Most of the newcomers are focusing on direct, point-to-point service, flying to underserved U.S. airports hungry for direct international service.
As an example, San Diego has seen the number of carriers that offer nonstop service to Europe jump this year from one -- British Airways -- to three, with the arrivals of Zurich-based Edelweiss Air and Condor Airlines, a German carrier with a long-established track record for vacation travel.
To Asia, the story is a bit different and is focused on China, where little-known carriers, such as Hainan Airlines, are offering direct flights from the United States to some of China's large interior cities, avoiding entry points such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
"Meteor strikes are all over the industry," wrote industry analyst Michael Boyd for Forbes.com. "Watch for major disruptive changes in air transportation. And watch for management planning innovation to match it."
Indeed, the disruption is already underway, led by a group of carriers that have become dubbed "disruptor airlines."
Some have long-established names, such as Germany's Condor, part of the large Thomas Cook Travel Group, with roots back to 1841. Well-known in Europe as a leisure-market carrier, Condor this year jumped full force into the American market with flights from its Frankfurt hub, launching a big U.S. expansion that included new destinations of San Diego, Pittsburgh and New Orleans and new routes to and from existing gateways.
Condor is an exception to the business model offered by many of the new arrivals, which focus on teaser, bare-bones, little-service fares with an upsell for better seats, meals and checked luggage. Still known for its low fares, Condor is the only discount carrier offering a three-cabin service on its trans-Atlantic flights -- economy, premium economy and business class. All passengers receive complimentary checked baggage and meals and have access to on-board entertainment systems. And it is partnered with the Alaska Airlines through an interline agreement that includes Alaska's Mileage Plan benefits.
"It's never been easier and more affordable for Americans to explore Europe," said Jens Boyd, head of long-haul operations for Thomas Cook Group Airlines. "With 17 gateways in the U.S., four of which just launched this summer, we're making excellent progress with our strategy to grow our long-haul network."
On a trip to Europe this summer I flew Condor's new service from Frankfurt to San Diego. With a convenient schedule, I was able to avoid a long layover on the way home, arriving at dinnertime instead of late in the evening. There was no worrying about ambling along endless corridors at London's Heathrow Airport or rushing from one terminal to the next at Chicago's O'Hare to change planes to the West Coast. The service on the Boeing 767 was first-rate, with a large cabin crew, a variety of entertainment options and a unique in-flight shopping program.
But the best part was having easy access to the large Frankfurt airport, a city unto itself with hotels connected to the terminal, a shopping center and a variety of local tour operators and numerous information kiosks with a bilingual staff. It's a great place to either start or end a trip to Europe.
One thing is for certain: Traveling to Europe for many Americans has become easier and cheaper, with fewer hassles of long airport connections and unplanned delays. That nonstop trip to Frankfurt, Oslo, Paris or even Reykjavik may be as close as your nearby airport, without facing the gauntlets posed by airports in Chicago, New York or Atlanta.
A number of airlines are offering sharply discounted fares across the Atlantic on new routes into the 2018 travel year. Prices as low as $99 each way have been offered recently.
Many are new carriers or are long established overseas but have names known by few in the United States. Some of these flights are from "second-tier" U.S. airports that include Stewart International (60 miles north of New York City) or Green Airport (Providence, Rhode Island) that are away from busy hubs such as Newark Liberty International, New York's JFK International and Boston's Logan International.
The routes they serve frequently don't end or pass through their home-base countries. For example, Norwegian Air Shuttle flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Barcelona as well as flying to Norway.
Fares can change dramatically overnight, so if you see a fare that works for you, book it. Meal service, checked-baggage, preferential seating and entertainment options generally carry prices beyond the basic ticket. Some may charge a "think about it" fee that locks in the fare for a set period of time before buying. And many rock-bottom fares are nonrefundable and do not include mileage-plan benefits.
Don't count out traditional U.S. carriers such as Delta, United and American when checking fares. They have been dropping their international fares, as well, to meet the new competition.
Destinations that recently have been aimed at bargain hunters: Manchester and Birmingham, England; London; Paris; Zurich; and Frankfurt.
Among the aggressive newcomers from abroad shaking up the airline industry:
Carl H. Larsen