Airlines Stretched Too Thin

Cutbacks, outmoded systems leave fliers hanging during delays.

Thus, planes last year were more full than in 2005. U.S. airlines filled a record 79.4% of their seats in the first 11 months of 2006. That average masks the fact that on the most popular routes, flights typically ran close to 100% full.

Though U.S. carriers are filling eight out of 10 seats on average, they remain barely profitable. In 2006, the industry profit margin was less than 2%, according to preliminary industry estimates.

All those packed planes create a huge problem when weather or other events cause airlines to go off schedule. There simply aren't enough readily available seats to accommodate all the displaced travelers. Miller, the New York consultant, was told he'd have a five-day wait in the pre-Christmas travel rush. Waits of 24 to 48 hours to get a rebooked seat are more common.

Part of the current problem with air travel may be one of perception. Delays caused by weather or other unexpected events are inherent in any form of travel. And whenever they begin to pile up in air travel, as they have this winter, the negative headlines seem to stack up almost as deep as the stranded passengers. Frequently, they become part of the national conversation.

For example, the Valentine's Day ice storm in New York triggered a six-day near-meltdown of JetBlue's operations. CEO David Neeleman spent three days apologizing publicly. He went on CBS' Late Show with David Letterman after Letterman had been particularly biting in his criticism.

Rare events

Statistically speaking, such events are rare. Last year, only about 10 out of every 10,000 flights were delayed more than two hours, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But that, says airline consultant Ira Gershkoff, a former airline operations executive who now leads JIT Airline Resources, does not entitle airlines to a free pass.

Says Gershkoff: "When there's a big tornado and 20 people get hurt or killed, we don't minimize it by saying it's only 0.02% of the local population, or whatever. So this is a legitimate issue."

For the most part, travelers seem to have taken well to today's do-it-yourself ticketing. American, for example, says 80% of its passengers avoid airport counters by using kiosks, the Internet or for-pay curbside services to check in.

But when things go wrong, the few agents working can be overwhelmed. That's because, in percentage terms, the biggest personnel cutbacks during the first half of the decade were among gate agents and telephone reservationists, according to industry data.

Mike Maloney, a beverage industry sales executive from Overland Park, Kan., says communication from the airline in such situations has become a huge problem.

When a scheduled six-hour trip home recently from Fort Lauderdale took 12 hours because of mechanical problems with two different planes and a de-icing delay at American's Dallas/Fort Worth hub, he and other travelers were kept in the dark. "Getting simple and accurate information to the customer doesn't seem to be their priority," he says. "No wonder people are pushing (Congress) for a passenger's bill of rights."

Jerry Quintiliani, a chemical salesman from Peoria, Ill., says he increasingly is "flabbergasted" by the way airlines and their front-line agents deal with delays.

A recent flight home from Chicago's O'Hare was canceled because of bad weather. The lone agent at the gate rebuffed requests for help in finding other flights, hotel rooms or rental cars on a night when all were in short supply.

Quintiliani eventually got home by teaming with two similarly desperate strangers. They rented a car and drove. "We got no help from the airline at all," he adds. "We know you can't control the weather, but at least give us an idea of what we can expect. And be nice about it."

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