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Now Boarding: JetBlue updates old planes with new seats, Air Force One gets upgrade

From passport renewals and return of free snacks, to refreshed cabins and new paint jobs, here are the latest news from the world of aviation and travel.

State Department: renew your passport now

Those traveling internationally this year should renew their passports if they are expiring soon, even if it’s still valid for a few more months. According to the New York Times, the State Department “anticipates a surge in passport demand throughout this year, and officials hope to avoid a crush that could leave some Americans fuming in frustration with no passport in hand of the day they planned to travel outside the country.”

The department is hoping to avoid the deluge of applications it encountered in 2007, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was implemented. It required passports from Americans returning to the U.S., by air, from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. Millions found themselves needing a passport for the first time, which overwhelmed the department.

One reason why the State Department thinks there may be an influx of applications this year has to do with the Real ID Act that calls for stricter requirements from driver’s licenses and other identification cards. Five states have yet to comply, but the deadline isn’t until January 22, 2018. Still, residents in those states worried about the status of their IDs cards are rushing to get passports, the Times reports, “adding to congestion in the system.”

Another reason: Many countries are requiring passports with at least six months of validity before they can be accepted. The department says it has received calls from Americans because they have been denied entry, even though their passports haven’t expired yet.

JetBlue refreshes cabins of older planes

jetblue-new-a320-1

JetBlue is redesigning the cabins inside its older Airbus A320 planes, bringing them in-line with the newer, larger A321s. Some of the upgrades include power outlets and USB ports in every seat, as well as larger, high-definition touchscreens and high-speed Wi-Fi. The display is increased from 5.6 inches to 10.1, while the number of DirecTV live TV channels is up from 36 to more than 100. The Android-based system allows for custom apps and device pairing, and it’s capable of features like closed captioning and separate audio tracks. Unfortunately, there’s less leg room, too: To accommodate extra seats, JetBlue decreased the amount of seat pitch in some rows. The airline claims, however, that it still offers more legroom than most airlines.

Snacks are back

©Terry Halsey No third party use without written permission
United Airlines

As the result of events like the September 11 attacks, the 2008 economic downturn, and high fuel costs in recent years, we saw airlines cutting back on free amenities, while implementing fees for everything from baggage check to priority boarding. But United is bringing back one freebie for coach passengers: snacks. The move is part of an effort to improve customer service, United says, but it also demonstrates favorable economics airlines are enjoying – from lower fuel prices to profits from aforementioned fees – that allow them to reinvest into services. (Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue have never stopped handing out free snacks.) But don’t expect to see free bag checks and hot meals to return anytime soon. Update on February 1, 2016: American Airlines announced that snacks will also make a comeback in its coach cabins, as well as more free entertainment options.

Alaska gets a new look

alaska-airlines-redesign

Alaska Airlines’ planes are getting new paintjobs, while a new visual identity will be rolled out across the board. The new branding updates the font in the logo, and adds new colors to the exterior of the planes. One feature that hasn’t disappeared is the iconic Eskimo on airplane tails. While it’s the same as before, it looks more modern thanks to cleaner lines.

No surprise, president’s new plane is a 747

747-8I Delivery flight
Boeing

The Pentagon announced that it has selected the 747-8 as the president’s next Air Force One. Like the president’s existing plane, a special version of the now-aging 747-200 (there are two of them in service), the 747-8 will be modified with equipment to safely transport the U.S. leader and anyone accompanying the president. The latest variant of Boeing’s “jumbo jet” has a lengthened upper deck and other improvements. But it’s not a surprise that the Pentagon would select the 747: For consideration, a plane must have four engines. The only other capable four-engine plane is made by France’s Airbus, and it is highly unlikely the Pentagon would pick a non-U.S. manufacturer. (Although the Air Force One moniker is usually associated with the 747, technically, any plane that carries the president receives that call sign.)