The year in travel was nothing if not eventful: 2014 included a historically deadly viral epidemic, technological breakthroughs in cruising and the sharing economy, a terrifying series of airline tragedies, and a Disney movie about two Norwegian sisters that changed people’s itineraries.
One unifying theme across all these top travel news events was social media: with people tweeting and Instagramming and Facebooking what they see more than ever, issues like the Knee Defender and bad passenger behavior are likely to get more exposure in 2015.
Here are Yahoo Travel’s top travel events of the year:
The Ebola outbreak crushes African tourism and scares fliers in America
The human toll from Ebola was enormous, as was the damage to African tourism. (Photo: Thinkstock)
The damage to human life created by Ebola this year was devastating: nearly 7,400 deaths overall, according to the World Health Organization. That includes 3,300 in Liberia, 2,500 in Sierra Leone, and 1,550 in Guinea.
Although most of the casualties were in these West African countries, the entire continent became associated with the disease, crippling tourism in East and South African countries that sorely needed it. According to one estimate, flights to sub-Saharan Africa were expected to drop 50 percent over four months.
The Ebola scare hit hard on American soil as well, with the first reported casualties in the country. The TSA began Ebola screening for passengers from West Africa, and American passengers began wearing masks on planes to shield themselves from the virus, even though it’s passed on through contact with bodily fluids, not through the air.
The United Nations secretary general said that virus transmission in West Africa has been slowing down, but the region hasn’t rid itself of the disease yet. The hope is that better quarantining and safety measures by health workers will limit further outbreaks.
Malaysia Air MH370 goes missing, headlining a year of airline tragedies
Malaysia Airlines had not just one, but two major tragedies. (Photo: AP)
The disturbing disappearance of MH370 led into a scary summer for air travel. On March 8, the 777 aircraft went missing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Despite an exhaustive investigation that included deep-sea searches, the plane and its 227 passengers and 12 crew members were never found.
Tragedy struck Malaysia Airline again July 17, when flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was struck by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine. On July 23, TransAsia Airlines Flight 222 crashed in Taiwan, leaving 48 dead, and one day later, the crash of Air Algerie Flight 5017 in Mali killed another 116 onboard.
As terrible as these events were, and despite the lessons that can be learned from them, the crashes shouldn’t be taken as a trend. 2013 marked the safest year on record for commercial airlines, and according to the Aviation Safety Network, the total 19 commercial-airline accidents and 526 fatalities this year are both under the 10-year average (32 and 672, respectively).
The Frozen Effect on Norway and Disney World
Frozen made its mark at Disney World, and with travel to Norway. (Photo: Matt Stroshane, courtesy Walt Disney World Resort)
It’s one thing for a hit movie to bring people to the theater; it’s something else when people are traveling overseas for it. But Elsa and Anna had that kind of effect on tourism in 2014. By July, flight searches to Norway were reportedly up 153 percent; another source reported a 65 percent increase in bookings to Norway, and hotel bookings were reportedly up 37 percent.
Disney, the maker of Frozen, capitalized big time on the search for Arendelle. Its Frozen-themed Scandinavian cruises for 2015 enjoyed brisk sales, and Disney World looked almost like Frozen World by the end of the year. The Viking-themed ride Maelstrom was shut down, to be replaced by a Frozen-themed attraction, and the holidays became more or less an Anna and Elsa Christmas Spectacular.
Quantum of the Seas changes the game for cruising
Quantum of the Seas. (Photo: Royal Caribbean)
No other cruise line has made a play for the non-cruiser like Royal Caribbean did with Quantum, with sister ships Anthem of the Seas waiting in the wings in April 2015. The ship introduced automated check-in, a wristband for purchases and entering your cabin, faster Internet speeds, X-Box Live, a glass capsule that takes people 300 feet overhead, a robot bartender, and more.
Will this kick off an arms race in the cruise industry, or will other cruise lines yield the tech crowd to Royal Caribbean while doubling down on their established customers? We’ll find out.
Cuba is no longer a forbidden travel fruit
Those vintage cars in Havana will soon get getting a lot more visitors. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Consider it a holiday gift from Messrs. Obama and Castro. After years of pleas to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, the two countries announced plans on doing exactly that – removing the current strings attached to visiting the island country and making Cuban cigars a not-so-regulated item.
There are still details to be worked out, and it may not be until the end of 2015 that we see any real difference in how Americans visit Cuba. But for now, the prospect of exploring the still-unspoiled Cuban towns is delighting many eager travelers.
The Knee Defender makes us wonder if reclining is OK on a plane
Ira Goldman, inventor of the Knee Defender. (Photo: AP)
The Knee Defender, which makes the person sitting in front of you on a plane unable to recline their seat, has been around for a while, but thanks to some high-profile fights this year, it launched a debate over whether passengers should be able to recline their seats. Several flights had to be diverted because of tense onboard arguments between passengers – the most famous being the one on Aug. 24 where a passenger using the Knee Defender got a soda thrown in his face.
The Knee Defender debate seemed to die down toward the end of the year, but the discussion about whether it’s OK for passengers to recline their seats is bound to live on.
Air rage and passenger shaming were front and center
A featured traveler on PassengerShaming.com (Photo: Instagram)
Bad passenger behavior didn’t begin or end with the Knee Defender. Maybe it’s because everyone has smartphones now and can more easily document it, but uncivilized plane passengers and brawls were all over the headlines in 2014.
Just last week on an Air China fight, one baby’s crying led to a fracas between a mom and two women, including a Neo-in-The Matrix-type photo. There was also the “nut rage” in December involving a Korean Air executive was so angry about how she’d been served macadamia nuts that she forced the plane to return to the gate at JFK – the airline is facing some big sanctions over that incident.
And that was just in December – there are too many incidents to mention here. It wasn’t just fights, but also garden-variety bad plane etiquette that got skewered this year. The Passenger Shaming blog posted pictures of sloppy fliers, and people went on Twitter to vent about the “worst person in the world” and other passengers they didn’t like.
Social media venting isn’t going anywhere, and we may see airlines retaliating more against onboard tweeters, as we saw this year.
The crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo deals a setback to space tourism
The wreckage of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert. (Photo: Associated Press)
The original space race was full of deadly accidents, and the test-flight crash of SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert was a reminder that space travel is dangerous, and bringing it to the masses might take a while. Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson had hoped to begin sub-orbital flights in 2015, but that timeline was set back.
The company said in November that a new model of SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin test flights within six months. Meanwhile, the demand to be aboard the first space-tourism flight hasn’t dropped. Virgin Galactic says that out of the 800 potential passengers who have paid $250,000 for a ticket, only 20 dropped out.
The sharing economy goes mainstream with travelers
For many in 2014, companies like Airbnb and Uber went from technological curiosities to first resorts for people wanting a room or a ride. This doesn’t include more specialized sharing-economy companies such as EatWith, where hosts cook for their visitors, or the more established Couchsurfing, where guests stay free with a host who shows them around.
This created options for people who want more than cookie-cutter hotels or standing in the rain trying to hail a cab, and the added personalization is especially a hit with millennials, who will dictate the future of travel. But that added visibility also put these successful disruptors under the microscope. Uber took heat for everything from threatening journalists to violating privacy with "God View" to a rape claim.
Airbnb got plenty of regulatory heat in places like New York and San Francisco, and by the end of the year it began collecting a hotel tax that will go to cities.
Airline loyalty programs became a lot less valuable
Unless you’re a big-time frequent flier like Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, loyalty programs may no longer help you. (Courtesy: Paramount Pictures)
Delta and United made the most high-profile changes to their loyalty programs, basing points around dollars spent versus miles flown. But other airlines, such as Southwest, JetBlue, and Air Canada, have toughened their rules as well. Fliers will have to respond by reconsidering their own, um, loyalty to these airlines and come up with new strategies to buy discounted travel – especially using the right credit cards. At least for now, American Airlines is keeping it old school and awarding points for miles flown.