Airlines Cram More Fliers into Fewer Seats and Flights

For the first time in recent aviation history, the financially troubled U.S. airline industry is shrinking domestic flying capacity in the face of strongly growing public demand for its service.

Delta frequent-flier Jay Zollicoffer is adjusting to the airline's cuts. The airline flies less frequently between Atlanta and Zollicoffer's Greensboro, N.C., home. As a result, he says the flights are often oversold and crowded.

"I've been flying Delta fairly heavily for the past 12 years, and this is the first time through all the changes that I've really noticed a difference," Zollicoffer says.

Northwest, also in bankruptcy reorganization since September, and its regional partners have shed 11% of U.S. capacity in much the same way as Delta -- less frequent service on many routes and smaller jets.

The analysis shows clear trends that are affecting how and when Americans travel this holiday season:

*Frequency of service. Most of the reductions came by scaling back the volume of service on routes rather than by eliminating them.

For example, Delta reduced the number of daily non-stop flights from Atlanta to Philadelphia to eight from 15. Delta's Atlanta-Dallas/Fort Worth service saw a similar cut. Northwest now flies one rather than three daily flights from Minneapolis to Albany, N.Y.

*Length of route. Capacity on flights of less than 750 miles has been trimmed more than on longer flights. For example, Independence Air cut nearly two-thirds of its seats between Washington Dulles and Raleigh-Durham, a 229-mile route.

*Time of day. Capacity on flights scheduled for 8 p.m. or later took deeper proportionate cuts than earlier flights. One in five flights between 10 p.m. and midnight have vanished since December 2004.

Cutbacks ripple out

High-mileage air travelers are seeing the effects.

Delta frequent-flier Teresa Colson of Lexington, Ky., says she's flying more on small 50-seat jets.

"We're all fighting over the exit row," she says.

Tink Wilkinson, a consultant based in Mobile, Ala., says he quit Delta for US Airways when it cut Atlanta-Mobile flights at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Delta ultimately reinstated one of the flights, but Wilkinson has stuck with its competitor.

"When you can't depend upon an airline to have consistent flight schedules, what's the point?" he says.

Since Northwest cut late-afternoon flights from Detroit into Flint, Mich., Dan Tunnecliffe says he's left with a difficult choice: miss business opportunities or face extended evening airport waits as he tries to get home to Flint.

Because Delta eliminated a night flight from Cincinnati to Ken Coker's home airport, Oklahoma City, getting home from the East Coast now requires connecting in Atlanta. Planned changes will soon add 90 minutes to a trip he makes about once a week. "Major inconvenience," says Coker, an automotive industry consultant.

Delta frequent-flier Rich Marcus of Fort Lauderdale says that since the reductions, he's noticed flights are fuller, which makes it difficult for business travelers such as himself to make last-minute changes. After a business trip to Greensboro last week required him to fly stand-by, he says he watched two planes depart before finally getting on the third. All were overbooked.

Route maps relatively stable

Despite the reductions, the USA's biggest airlines, which serve hundreds of cities, so far have kept their route maps mostly intact. Delta, for example, has ceased service in the last year to just four of about 200 U.S. airports. Nonetheless, some cities have seen airlines pull out completely, and airport directors in many places are feeling vulnerable to future cuts.

Delta and Independence Air recently ceased flying to the Newburgh, N.Y., airport, roughly an hour and a half's drive from Manhattan. Independence Air's exit meant the loss of non-stop service to Washington, D.C., and Delta's departure meant the loss of non-stop service to Cincinnati.

"A small airport like ours is always one of the first that goes, because it's not as important as the larger ones," says Tanya Vanasse, the airport's marketing manager.

Indianapolis-based discounter ATA quit flying to its hometown. When ATA pulled out of Grand Rapids, Mich., the community received a double blow. It meant the loss of non-stop service to Chicago Midway, and it also caused fares for the remaining carriers to climb, says airport marketing manager Bruce Schedlbauer.

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