Air Travel’s Costly Future
By SUSAN STELLIN
Published: June 7, 2010
ANYONE who flies regularly knows that the state of air travel is bleak, so it may be encouraging to hear that the federal government has put together an influential group to suggest ways to fix the industry’s most pressing problems.
The Future of Aviation Advisory Committee held its first meeting in Washington late last month, and while, yes, other blue-ribbon committees have been convened in the past, the Transportation Department has been more aggressive lately about tackling long-ignored challenges.
Among the issues the group is charged with addressing: maintaining passenger safety and a qualified workforce, ensuring the industry’s financial stability while preserving competition and minimizing aviation’s environmental impact.
Made up of a mix of airline and airport executives, aircraft manufacturers, employee representatives, analysts, academics and one consumer advocate, it is a fairly balanced panel, though perhaps passengers got short-changed. (Every other interest group has at least two people on the 19-member committee.)
More notable was the fact that these are people who rarely gather around one table, let alone in public with reporters present, and many are rivals in other settings. As Hubert Horan, an airline consultant who is not on the committee, put it: “These people have been fighting and debating for years, and there are conflicts between all of their interests. What is the process for coming up with some resolution where they all agree on something?”
While the daylong meeting did not answer that question (there will be four more meetings before the end of the year, when the committee is expected to submit its suggestions), the discussion provided a rare peek into how industry insiders see the future of air travel.
Here are some highlights gleaned from the conversation:
Small Cities Versus Big Cities
The committee’s discussions about competition focused mostly on the rivalry between low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, which primarily fly domestically, and airlines like Delta, American and United, which have been investing more in their international business while relying on regional partners to fly passengers from small cities to their hubs.
What that means for passengers is that flying has turned into three very different experiences — with different price tags — depending on where you are going.
If you live in Saginaw, Mich.; Spokane, Wash.; or any other small city, you are likely to face increasing fares to fly to larger hubs. And with airlines cutting back on flights, passengers in smaller markets will have fewer options to choose from, and less reliable service, since regional flights (which are usually flown on smaller planes) are more prone to cancellation and delays when storms disrupt travel. Regional planes are also flown by pilots who earn much less than their counterparts at bigger carriers, which has already prompted investigations into the industry’s inconsistent standards for safety.
“The question of adequate service to all of our communities should be an issue of concern to all of us,” said Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, questioning whether big carriers and their regional partners would meet this need.
But Glenn Tilton, United’s chairman, stated it more bluntly: “There are clearly going to be winning cities and losing cities,” he said, addressing the fact that the industry cannot sustain service to destinations that don’t have the passengers to fill planes.
The outlook for international travel is similarly foreboding. The emergence in the past decade of ever-more powerful global alliances, which allow domestic and foreign airlines to coordinate schedules and prices, means that competition among international carriers is diminishing and that fares will continue to rise as a result. According to Mr. Horan, the airline consultant, trans-Atlantic fares increased 46 percent between 2003 and 2008, versus 15 percent for domestic fares, and he sees other international routes moving in a similar direction.
But if you’re flying from one larger American city to another, you’re in luck. On those routes — especially ones served by either JetBlue or Southwest — prices are still near historic lows, and if and when those carriers expand to other markets, they are likely to bring fares down with them.
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