"The airlines have just come off $35 billion in unprecedented losses since 9/11 and only now are starting to see profitability as a result of painful reductions," said David A. Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. "Despite these reductions, they are facing the highest fuel prices in history."
With fares remaining relatively low, more people flew this summer than ever before.
The large airlines, on average, had planes flying with 80% to 90% of their seats filled, which meant popular flights were likely to be overbooked and passengers had to be bumped off.
The planes were also tardy more often, with a quarter arriving late this year, up from 16% five years ago, according to the Transportation Department.
"The service levels this summer were a challenge," said Edward Bastian, president of Delta, which posted the best on-time record among the domestic airlines although it did not fare as well with mishandled baggage. It is spending $100 million for a new baggage-handling system at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
"We realize we have to continue to make investments back into service," Bastian added.
Who's to blame?
Airlines say an antiquated air-traffic control system developed in the 1950s can't manage a 40% jump in flight operations since 1995 and needs to be updated. The number of domestic flights jumped from 3.6 million in 1995 to nearly 5 million this year.
The Federal Aviation Administration says airlines are jamming too many flights during certain times of day at larger airports. A Bush administration panel met Thursday to begin looking at the possibility of limiting flights at certain airports, including New York's John F. Kennedy International, one of the worst for delays.
Passenger groups say airlines slashed wages and cut their workforces too much during the downturn, and disgruntled airline employees are taking it out on travelers.
"What the passengers are feeling from the airline employees is not anger at them but anger at management for not restoring wage cuts when the airlines are making money again," Hanni said.
For their part, the airline industry said the latest profit gains pale in comparison to the losses over the previous six years and airlines are starting to reinvest earnings in buying planes, upgrading seats and adding staff.
Delays also cost airlines $6 billion in lost revenue, so they have an incentive to reduce late arrivals and departures, industry officials said.
"Carriers have done what the customers have asked for -- reduce costs to provide low-fare service" Castelveter said. Safety and low fares are always listed in surveys as passengers' top considerations, he added. "But there is a sacrifice that comes with it."