Airlines Stretched Too Thin

Cutbacks, outmoded systems leave fliers hanging during delays.

Charlie Miller could be a poster child for nightmarish air travel during the winter now drawing to a close.

A hospital consultant from Barneveld, N.Y., Miller got caught in the Dec. 20 blizzard that closed Denver International Airport for more than two days. Told by his carrier, Continental Airlines, that it would be Christmas night before it could get him home, Miller eventually set out on his own.

He managed to get home late on Christmas Eve. But to do it, he had to sleep two nights at the airport, check in at two high-priced hotels, pay $150 for an 8-mile cab ride in Denver, buy a first-class ticket on United, fly to Los Angeles, then connect through Philadelphia. His total extra cost: $3,000.

"I know weather is not covered" by the airline's policy for compensating displaced travelers because it is beyond their control. "But everyone was so rude and uncooperative," Miller said.

The travel collapse precipitated by recession and terrorism in 2001 has prompted draconian reductions by an industry that lost $35 billion over the five years ended in 2005. Domestic airlines are operating smaller fleets and filling more seats on the average flight. They've shed 154,000 workers, become heavily reliant on do-it-yourself ticketing and shifted some of their telephone reservations work offshore and to part-timers working from their homes.

The retrenchment has brought most airlines in the USA back to thin profitability. But it also has created an industry that is running full tilt all the time and more vulnerable to breakdowns when faced with adversity.

Lesser events than that pre-Christmas blizzard in Denver have disrupted air travel this winter. Hundreds of thousands of air travelers had their lives knocked off course this winter by a dust storm that closed Dallas/Fort Worth airport, an ice storm that slowed operations at New York John F. Kennedy on Valentine's Day and a flawed computer switch-over by US Airways last week.

It's not just the cutbacks that limit airlines' ability to bounce back from adversity. Outmoded systems for controlling aircraft on the ground and in the air, along with airport growth that lags behind the increase in passenger traffic, leave the aviation industry today with almost no margin for error.

R. John Hansman, an information technology and aviation expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the nation's air travel system is approaching capacity.

It's operating so close to the edge, Hansman says, that when any little thing goes wrong in one location, things are prone to go wrong across a whole region or even the nation.

Traveler Jan Harrison, a corporate trainer from Poulsbo, Wash., who twice last month was thrown off schedule by long delays at Salt Lake City and Chicago, puts it another way: "The entire system is so stretched, so understaffed, without room to flex. If it's sunny, and not too windy, and everybody does his or her job exactly right at exactly the right time, and the passengers can board themselves quickly and without any issues ... well, maybe we have a chance to take off on time."

Fewer flights

Almost 684 million people boarded commercial planes in the USA through the first 11 months of last year, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's more than the record 670 million boardings in all of 2005. But there were 3% fewer flights operated last year than in 2005.

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