Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Passenger Push-Back

Travelers are pushing back against lousy airline service and virtually weekly anti-competitive far hikes. It’s now so obvious that there is a significant falloff in air travel that even the bumptious Air Transport Association, invincible defender of the indefensible, is copping to the prospect that “slightly fewer passengers” will fly this summer.

Let’s cut through the PR palaver and look at the numbers. The airline trade group forecast, which uses very optimistic advance data, is that domestic travel will be off 2 percent this summer, which USA Today this morning correctly points out would be the biggest seasonal falloff in air travel since the summer after 9/11.

(The schoolmarms who write those USA Today sub-heads, ever ameliorative, importune all of us here in the USA to “Pack your patience. Airlines predict delays and congestion.”)

Well, this is being written from my outpost in the Sonoran desert, with a sky full of sun. I predict light and warmth.

[Update: While the airlines are hollering about fuel, they sure are using a lot less of it. The demand for jet fuel in the United States fell in April to the lowest level in five years for that month, according to the American Petroleum Institute, in a report today by Reuters. While there were a lot of flight cancellations in April, led by the American Airlines maintenance fiasco, that wasn't enough to fully explain the trend The oil trade group said that April was the sixth straight month that jet fuel use fell, Reuters says.]

Meanwhile, Doug Steenland, the man who helped further demoralize Northwest Airlines’ hardworking pilots, flight attendants and other employees while blissfully packing his pension package, warns that the imminent Delta takeover of Northwest (and please, colleagues, let us stop referring to this event as a “merger”) will mean still higher fares and a shrinking (domestic) air transport system -- because airlines are just paying so darn much for fuel.

…Excuse me for a minute while I contemplate the situation of some poor trucker trying to make it in face of that $4.67 a gallon price for diesel I noticed the other day at a gas station out by the Interstate....

OK, then. The poor airlines, bailed out with regularity by the taxpayers, blithely strangle vital national air-transport service while they wail about gas prices, as if we weren't all trying to cope with gas prices. The airlines seem to believe they can do this without consequence.

At some point, the Congress we allegedly have in this country might want to take a look at the economic and social implications (not to mention national security implications) of a severely deteriorating national air-transport system -- and perhaps hold some feet to the fire. I mean, isn’t that Congress’s job?

Steenland, meanwhile, warns that the already shrunken system will shrink even more than has been announced. Steenland, of course, will be headed to the golf course the minute the Delta people take charge.

Here are some excerpts, with my comment, natch, from the Air Transport Association’s press release on summer travel:

---“ATA forecasts that slightly fewer passengers will travel June 1 through August 31 compared to the same period last year. Approximately 211.5 million passengers are expected to fly this summer, down approximately 1 percent from the 214.2 million passengers who traveled during the summer months of 2007.” (Statement conflates domestic travel, which is being slashed by the airlines, with international travel, which the airlines are boosting).

---“For a variety of reasons, slightly fewer people will fly this summer and planes will be approaching 85 percent full,'” said ATA President and CEO James C. May. (‘Variety of reasons'= Major airlines are yanking more planes out of service, cutting routes to many small and mid-size cities, and generally shrinking the system while raising prices.)

---“`We know that summer travel can be stressful for passengers and airports are well organized to handle unexpected schedule changes or delays,’” said Greg Principato, ACI-NA [Airports Council International North America] president. “`We will work closely with the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration to ensure safe and smooth operations for travelers. In the case of delays, airports will help to provide a full range of business and leisure services to meet passenger needs.’” [True fact. Principato is a good guy and the airports have really been stepping up to the plate to provide customer service that no longer is being provided by the airlines],

---“... with the cost of jet fuel approaching $170 per barrel, airlines will be taking every conceivable step to minimize delays and improve operational efficiencies.” [Correct: You will see airlines pro-actively canceling even more domestic flights, to cut costs, using the lamest of excuses, like party cloudy skies.]

---“Working together we are doing our best to make this summer travel season better than last.”

[Talk about setting the bar low!]


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