Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Summertime ...

Might it be too early to speculate on what domestic air travel may be like this summer? Perhaps not:

Summer air travel is gonna suck! It's gonna suck so bad!!

Sorry about the yelling. Channeling Sam Kinison there.

But really, it's going to be just awful. The only possible mitigating factor is that so many Americans will be utterly bummed out by the U.S. economy that they'll stay home in droves. Not likely, though.

Delta Air Lines today supplied some new hints of what's ahead. This comes just after major airlines sneaked in the fourth big across-the-board domestic fare hike this year (and by the way, I know they're not getting together in a big secret room and colluding on fixing fares. That would be wrong! But I swear, the recent fare increases do seem to have the reflect the same result.)

Delta said today it was cutting another 5 percent off domestic capacity this summer. By summer, 40 percent of Delta's seat capacity will be on international routes, where the profits are better.

And that's going to be a trend. At the end of last year, projections were that the major airlines would probably cut domestic seat capacity by an additional 3-4 percent this year (after a nearly 10 percent reduction last year). Now I am hearing estimates that domestic seat capacity on the major airlines might drop by as much as 10 percent this year.

Naturally, the news accounts are leading with Delta planning to cut 2,000 jobs, which is bad news -- but doesn't nearly have the effect on most of us that widening capacity reductions will have, even with fare hikes continuing.

Last year, domestic airlines racked up an average load factor of about 80 percent. That means 80 percent of available seats were sold, and it further means that on most flights, every single seat was full.

Last summer, load factors were close to 90 percent, incidentally. You saw the cascade of delays, cancellations, diverted flights and instances of passengers stuck for long hours on tarmacs.

That just gets worse this year. What little advice I can offer is: Book early if you have plans.


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