December 27, 2004


THE NEW YORK TIMES has an interesting article today on the woes which faced air travelers over the Christmas holiday, and warns they could be a sign of far worse troubles to come in future.

In 2005, according to the NYT, the six remaining main-line carriers plan to slash $7.5 billion in spending and 20,000 jobs along with it. This has understandably left workers rather unhappy. The NYT reports:

For passengers, the irreversible retrenchment by the airline industry, which has shrunk by a quarter since the start of the decade, has meant the loss of food service, a reduction in routes, flight delays, lost baggage and other headaches.

But if employees' reactions to these kinds of changes are anything like what US Airways experienced over the weekend, consumers are in for more serious disruptions.

Yesterday, US Airways, which is operating in bankruptcy, canceled 29 flights, on top of 300 cancellations on Friday and Saturday, when unusually high numbers of baggage handlers in Philadelphia and flight attendants elsewhere called in sick. Union officials said the sick calls were not organized.

Comair, a regional carrier for Delta Air Lines, also canceled flights for a second day. The airline canceled all 1,100 of its flights on Saturday after a computer malfunctioned, stranding passengers in cities like Cincinnati and Atlanta. The airline planned to operate just 172 flights yesterday and to return to normal by noon on Wednesday, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

The newspaper goes on to note specific troubles at US Airways, which has faced strike threats from employees; and the story suggests gently that US Airways' chief executive probably ought have taken a pay cut himself when he insisted upon one for the troops. (Dude! Don't you remember what happened to Don Carty? Geez).

Now, given our own personal experiences on airlines including US Scareways, American't, Incontinental and Hellta, we admit we don't really have much confidence in the major carriers. We can sympathize with the workers fighting the good fight, but only up to a point; and our sympathy wanes each time we see the vats of red ink which pour forth from the airlines' balance sheets.

For let's face it: the airlines' old way of doing business is D-E-A-D dead, and the airlines will be as well if they aren't able to regroup and get back in the game. If their trade unions fail to recognize this, they'll be shit out of luck quicker than one can say Jack Robinson, and they won't have jobs or working conditions over which they can haggle.

And the trade unions are apparently failing to realize this. As the NYT mentioned, one of the reasons why US Airways screwed up so badly this past weekend was because of "sickouts." Their unions understandably insist this was an unorganized effort, because "sickouts" are grounds for unfair labor-practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board. But we also know how such wildcat job actions work: employees get together independently and decide upon an action, in a manner similar to prisoners plotting an escape, whilst the unions conveniently look the other way with a wink and a nod. It is one of those little truths that one can never publish, that's all.

So while we hate to say it, we can't see any other option for the major carriers than to start over from a blank slate -- scrap everyone's compensation agreements, from the lowliest ticket agents to the chief executives, and have them collectively suffer until things get back in the black. Then they can fight over compensation, which would hopefully involve a great deal of profit-sharing and other schemes which would ensure everyone at an airline would win when things went well, and lost when things went poorly.

We note with disapproval, however, the NYT's hints about the Joys of a Regulated Airline Industry. We don't know about you, but we don't miss the days of $600 coach tickets and horrible airline food and luggage that somehow traveled around the world while its owners were stuck in Newark. Screw that. Let the chips fall where they may, and in the meantime, we're flying Southwest. There's something to be said for being free to travel 'round the country.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 27, 2004 08:49 AM | TrackBack

Incontinental. Genius.

Posted by: simon from jersey at December 27, 2004 10:12 AM

Although plenty of bloggers with IT backgrounds are discussing the technical aspects of why and how a single software program could ground Comair's entire 164-airplane fleet, I am stunned that the management of a regional airline is so incompetent that it did not have in place a way of manually coordinating the location of planes and flight crews. Let's face it, we're talking about only 164 airplanes. Certainly Delta/Comair knew where the planes were, and if these planes ended up away from their base in Cincinnati, the location where the crews last assigned to those planes were. Even if work rules prevented a particular crew from flying on Christmas (i.e., they had logged their limit of flight hours for the day or week), the airline should have been able manually to find crews to get most of their planes in the air, especially since the bad weather Christmas day was confined to the Gulf Coast and Florida, and that the Cincinnati airport was fully operational. I discuss the Comair mishap today on my own blog,

Posted by: Michael Meckler at December 27, 2004 10:37 AM

Simon: Thanks! I thought it more funnier than simply recounting my experiences with Northworst.

Mike: Agreed. You'd think they'd have some sort of manual or at least a digital backup!

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at December 27, 2004 05:43 PM

I totally agree that the lack of a back up system at Comair is truly amazing and totally unforgivable in view of the massive disruptions this caused to tens of thousands of holiday passengers. The U.S. Air fiasco is even worse since it appears to represent the deliberate actions of the employees. Re-regulation of the airlines is just not in the cards (fortunately)but the industry has few barrieres to entry and more low cost air lines will be springing up to fill the void. And all the new airlines seem to be staffed with people enthusiastic to do their jobs at wages far below what the legacy carriers used to pay.

Posted by: Swammi in Solon at December 28, 2004 02:11 PM