Fliers, drivers and rail riders, heads up: the next 10 years will dramatically transform America's traveling landscape.
Get ready to share the road with driverless, computer-controlled cars. Prepare to join millions of travelers who will start riding trains to nearby cities. Expect to be nickel-and-dimed (even more) by the airlines. Don't be surprised to see sleek new airline designs that run cleaner and burn less fuel, thanks to new materials and innovative technology.
In the air, the trend toward low-cost airlines and so-called "a la carte" pricing will likely become the accepted norm, as fliers finally accept a business model that reminds us: nothing is free and everything costs. By 2022, say experts, the consumer war over having to pay for every airline perk and option from pillows to snacks to window seats to legroom will be over.
Number crunchers will win. Grumblers will lose.
"It's the unbundling of services," said airline analyst Mike Miller. "Passengers are choosing the airlines that have the most fees, most often. These carriers are the most profitable and the most full."
Opponents fear the new hyper-itemized normal will create a group of "super elite" passengers who are treated very differently than the rest of us. More on that later.
On the ground, we'll see amazing technological strides in the development of self-driving cars during the next decade. But America's roads and bridges will continue to suffer from much needed repairs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. But hey, at least we'll be able to multitask while our cars are dodging potholes.
Across the nation's sprawling rail lines, experts anticipate several states from coast to coast will continue investing in trains that connect regional cities. And the future looks bright, analysts say, for the nation's urban light rail and tramway systems. We'll get to that in a minute.
First, let's use four quick stats to remind ourselves what a big deal the transportation industry is:
Planes: By 2022, the FAA predicts more than a billion U.S. airline passengers.
Cars and trucks: Washington says registered passenger vehicles number above 250 million (for perspective, the entire U.S. population numbers more than 312 million).
Trains: Amtrak ridership set an all-time record this year: more than 31 million passengers.
The 'race to the bottom'
Prospects for the airline industry look good, but still, some experts are worried.
Airline consumer expert Brett Snyder of crankyflier.com fears continued success of low-cost carriers could hurt consumers in the long run. Low-cost airlines are growing fast and raking in big profits by charging ultra-cheap fares while nickel-and-diming passengers to pay for even the most basic extras.
Europe's RyanAir offers an extreme example. The airline's CEO has talked about charging his passengers to use on-board toilets and creating standing-room-only sections on some flights.
The danger, said Miller, is creating two types of fliers: the "haves" -- "super-elite frequent fliers who get everything" -- and the "have-nots" -- passengers in economy "who get nothing."
That business model sounds familiar, said Miller, of the American Aviation Institute. "CEOs are earning more money than ever and the average wage is not going up. Now we're seeing that mirrored by airline service. That's a little troubling because the coach passenger seems to be always getting less."
By 2022, fliers will likely have accepted the idea that they must pay fees for every perk and service which, a generation earlier, was included in passenger fares.
Snyder is no fan of extreme low-cost carriers like RyanAir. But in general, he believes passengers want choices and, to some degree, a la carte provides that. It's a system that allows passengers to choose the services they want. Some fliers may not be able to get their heads around it because they're stuck in the past.
"A lot of people who don't like this trend have in their minds the way it used to be," said Snyder. "They think that's how it should be."
If the low-cost model becomes the standard for success, Snyder warns, other airlines seeking profits will follow, triggering a "race to the bottom," as every airline tries to "slash and burn costs and do everything they can to make more money by cutting back. I think that would be really unfortunate."
Denver-based Frontier Airlines "is the hope for the future," said Snyder. "They're trying to become a low-cost carrier, but they have more amenities on board, although you do have to pay for them, such as live TV and extra legroom. They're trying to offer a bit more to people."
Expect more air passengers to demand Wi-Fi and personalized entertainment choices in the coming years. Airlines may provide access to movies stored on a digital media server aboard the aircraft, or, a third-party website where passengers can watch video now or later after they de-plane. Power outlets for personal devices ought to become standard on all passenger seats, say experts, not just in first class.
But some choices, such as seating, shouldn't be limited to all or nothing. Regular carriers, say analysts, should offer more "in-between choices," like Delta's Economy Comfort or United's Economy Plus, with more legroom and other amenities for a few dollars extra.