Giving thanks for — wait for it — a greatly improved U.S. air travel experience

After a week in Mexico, I had just cleared customs and was officially back on U.S. soil. Home, sweet home!

And then, reality set in.

"Step over here, sir. I am going to have to clear your buttocks."

It was the dreaded, thorough pat-down by TSA. In front of scores of onlookers, no less. By the time I was cleared, the agent could have effectively described my anatomy to a sketch artist if required.

There are so many potential trigger points in the air travel experience that can drive a passenger towards Full Vesuvius mode in no time. It's a miracle any of us sign up for this in the first place.

When the slew of airline mergers were announced over the past decade, the fear was that with less competition, airlines wouldn't innovate. A cynic by nature, I predicted, along with many of you, higher prices and less attention to service.

But I'm just not seeing that yet. In fact, I could argue that M & A activity has been for the better, like more consistent service, fewer frequent flier accounts and more check-in capacity for fewer airlines. It's also helped that we've enjoyed a few years with low fuel costs.

In an industry this complex, there are always spectacular fails. But air travel is tasked with moving millions of people at a 100% safety clip 24/7. Not only do airports and airlines get it right most of the time, they've improved in many ways.

So I want the airlines, TSA and airports to know that yes, the work isn't going unnoticed. I'm not the only one, a recent study concluded airlines have made gains in on-time performance, oversold flights and baggage handling. J.D. Power's report also found positives, particularly in terms of lower costs and improved service.

If you are traveling this holiday season, keep calm, carry on, and try to appreciate some of these recent improvements to the experience:

Planes are better. Most of the cabins I've been on lately have been pretty snazzy, complete with USB plugs, more overhead space and cool lighting. (Considering I'm just 5'8" with boots on and bedhead, the inches lost to legroom haven't really affected me). I love how Southwest has free streaming TV and JetBlue's Wifi is not only free but it actually works way better than Go-Go's useless $20 service. Commercial aircraft is a pretty bullish industry. Just consider what Boeing told shareholders in their recent market outlook:

Worldwide air travel has grown at a historically brisk pace. Year-over-year passenger travel growth for the past five years has averaged 6.2 percent. Low air fares, higher living standards with a growing middle class in large emerging markets, and the growth of tourism and travel relative to total consumer spending in major economies are all driving strength in the demand for air travel.

Customer service is, too. This is the first year I've flown with an infant, and I can't tell you how much more helpful and friendly everyone at the airport is compared to your average tunnel-vision solo traveler. Maybe my wife and I just look that harried.

But I've noticed improvements all over. Last week, a flight attendant on Delta went out of their way to give some extra miles to a passenger who simply switched seats with a woman. It seems like you can ask for extra cookies and the whole can of soda without getting a look.

Social media seems to be helping communication between passengers and airlines, too. One of the most annoying things about air travel in the past was that it took minutes-to-hours on hold over the phone to speak with an agent. Social media changed that. You can tweet all sorts of stuff to an airline handle and they will often times respond instantly. My hope, however, is that you tweet the bad and the good.

Tech is streamlining services. The self-serve baggage check trend seems to be working. Apps are better. Rebooking due to cancelled flights happen automatically before you even land (on one recent connection, the app thought I wouldn't make my connection and rebooked me to a later flight, but I raced to catch my flight and got on anyways, no questions asked).

There are good foundations being laid with service and tech, even if once in awhile an epic meltdown occurs. But that's just the 21st-century world we've chosen, folks.

TSA-Pre and customs innovations are godsends. When TSA-Precheck debuted, my loyalty to one airline went out the window. The security rigamarole was my single biggest pain point to air travel, especially when we had to take off shoes and remove liquids. TSA-Pre lines are short, generally swift, and all I do is stick my phone in my backpack. It feels like the good ol' days.

Compared to security lines abroad this year — getting thru Manchester's new security procedures after The Open was chaos, and why does Canada require you show ID like five times within 100 feet of one another? — TSA has given me relatively less to raise the blood pressure about — full pat-downs notwithstanding.

It may seem like the only times TSA innovates it's for the worse, but that's not true. Just recently, they announced a trial of new "self-screening" lanes. I've also recently learned there is a new app for customs. I don't use it since I paid for Global Entry, but if you have a foreign country in your plans, give the Mobile Passport app try.

Airports are modernizing. My home airport, Austin-Bergstrom (AUS), has been investing like crazy, expanding terminals, parking and more. It's increased competition and the number of non-stop destinations. Recent layovers in Atlanta and Houston among others show these big hubs are also stepping up with everything from better food to more places to charge. $1 trillion is being invested into airports worldwide.

And, New Yorkers! JFK is even coming into the 21st century sometime soon.

Fares aren't terrible. We all feared higher ticket prices due to consolidation, but that just doesn't seem to have materialized quite yet. There seems to be a kind of mental wall of paying over $400 for a roundtrip domestic.(This Atlantic article from 2013 has a thorough explanation about how historically, ticket prices have dropped significantly — even after all the fees).

It's easier getting TO the airport: With taxi companies losing their grip on their drop-off/pickup monopoly, competition has never been more fierce for your airport transportation (personally, I'm fond of Wingz).

Also, thanks to Uber and its peers, I can happily report that friends aren't asking me for rides as much.

So to everyone involved, thanks!

It's still hardly a perfect system. Paying for checked baggage is tough getting used to, and flying Basic Economy on Delta last week was a blow to my ego. But all things considered, flying is a pretty darn good way to get around.

I've been a frequent flyer for over 10 years now, but the first time traversing through airports as a parent with all the necessary provisions, I felt like I was in Kathmandu. So, thanks to all the folks who have shepherded my family and I (and my golf clubs — which showed up on time every flight!) through the skies this year.

And thanks to all you readers for another great year at Golf Advisor. I hope you're going somewhere warm enough — with understanding in-laws — to let you tee it up a couple rounds.

And if you've had a horrible year in the skies and think I'm off the rails, let me know in the comments below.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. Prior to the launch of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram @btuck34.
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Commented on

You know we are quick to complain, so it is always nice to see a non-promotional complimentary piece.
Good job Brandon!
And yes I agree with you.
For how many passengers and connections airlines move on a regular basis, the industry is doing a good job and getting better!

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Commented on

love the pic of 9 seats across and no aisles.

Commented on

Agree with most everything you said, Brandon, but I'm not a fan of the new basic economy, which doesn't allow you to pick your seat, take a carry-on free of charge (unless you have status or that airline's credit card) or even upgrade to a better part of the economy cabin, no matter how much you're willing to pay. Plus, you don't get mileage credit toward elite status. On top of that, if you don't realize all this and try to take on a carry bag, they essentially charge you twice as much as they would have had you checked it in the first place, more than making up for any "savings" you might realize for choosing the cheapest fare to begin with.

Commented on

Good points but I didn't notice any difference as it relates to checked and carry-on bags on Delta's Basic Economy. I paid the same ($25) to check golf clubs. To/from, I ended up checking my roller bag at the gate for free as well.

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The cost for checked bags at check-in is the same -- whether it's economy or basic economy. If you have status or the airline credit card with Delta, that helps, too. And if they're asking for volunteers to check bags, you've got some leverage and can probably get your bag checked for free at the gate (I don''t think the agents like breaking the news to folks). But I've seen United ding people who are on basic economy and tried to take a carry-on onto the plane in the last group. They get charged the checked bag fee plus an extra fee for doing it at the gate. I just don't think that's great for customer relations.

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