Passengers need to fight back as airlines cut service, raise fares
If passengers are going to have to accept higher airfares, a reduced air travel network and less federal regulation as the price of commercial aviation viability, why don't we, as travel consumers, nail up our own manifesto to the airline industry's door?
The New York Times
As they say in the Navy, when seas get rough, stand by for heavy rolls. If you think that airplanes are crowded now, if you worry about service to smaller and midsize cities, if you're alarmed by rising airfares, just wait.
"I don't think people realize what's coming," said Michael Boyd, president of airline forecaster Boyd Group International. "Airlines are going to do OK, but doing OK means they're going to be dropping a lot of places they now fly. Air travel is going to get accessed by fewer and fewer people," as airlines continue to reduce service to many markets to cut costs, he said.
"This is a mixed metaphor, but it's going to be a sea change in air travel patterns," he said.
For more than a year, most airlines have been reducing capacity in the domestic air travel system while concentrating on the major routes that provide the most revenue and feed their international routes. Still, they are clearly worried about the future, with fuel now accounting for about 35 percent of costs, and travelers starting to push back against steady increases in fares. Domestic airlines collectively earned $390 million last year, and $2.7 billion in 2010, after a decade in which they collectively lost $53 billion, according to Airlines for America, the industry trade group.
The trade group recently issued a detailed "Case for a U.S. National Airline Policy," calling on the federal government to reduce aviation taxes and regulations, assist the industry in facing more aggressive global competition, curb fuel prices and volatility, and spend more money on improving the national air traffic control system and other federal services.
The trade group, in its manifesto, said the airlines wanted "a cohesive policy supporting the integral role of the U.S. airline industry in our economy" and argued that without help, "domestic service levels will suffer," especially at smaller cities and rural communities.
With jet fuel at $3 a gallon, the situation would be just "ugly," Boyd said. At $4 a gallon, it will be a full-blown crisis, he said. At the end of last week, the jet fuel price was $3.23 a gallon, about triple the average price a decade ago.
But as we assess the airlines' credible declarations for more favorable federal assistance, let me make a suggestion. If we travelers are going to have to accept higher fares, a reduced air travel network and less federal regulation as the price of commercial aviation viability, why don't we, as travel consumers, nail up our own manifesto to the airline industry's door?
Let me start with just two items of my own to begin this airline consumer manifesto.
Regional flights: Airlines must be more clear about their relationships with the regional airlines — the companies they contract with to provide regional jet and some turbojet service for small and midsize airports, where some of the worst disruptions now occur. Far too often, passengers who have problems on connecting regional flights are frustrated in trying to deal with the major airline, which sold them the ticket but sometimes shrugs off its responsibilities to the contractor that flies the plane.
For major airlines except Southwest, regional airlines form the backbone of service between the big airline hubs and many midsize and small airports. B Regional airline flights, for instance, account for about two-thirds of the departures at Chicago O'Hare and Washington-Dulles airports. But that business is struggling as major airlines re-evaluate domestic route networks to get the most revenue possible for every mile flown.
"Regional airlines are not airlines," Boyd said. "They're leasing companies, and the kind of equipment they lease, especially 50-seat regional jets, is becoming less and less economically feasible." He added that "the need for what they provide is going away" as major airlines drop service on those smaller jets.
Customer service: Customer complaints must be handled better. For one thing, I hear far too often from travelers who are angry about being threatened with arrest (as I noted in a recent column) by airline employees who are merely annoyed by the customer's insistence on getting better information. So I propose that any airline employee who threatens a customer with arrest for any reason be required to file a formal report of the incident for independent evaluation.
Getting Ralph Nader: Incidentally, I think we can get Ralph Nader, the founder of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, to join our movement, given his growing vexation with air travel.
"I'm trying to get the Harvard Business School to do a case study" on how companies can continue alienating customers with bad service and get away with it, he told me recently.
"I never saw anything remotely like this when I started fighting against the airlines back in the 1960s," he said. "Those issues were totally trivial compared with what we're dealing with today. You can expose them and they just don't care."