It will be a rough landing at the end of the summer for many travelers. This is assuming you are not already in the 99 percent of the traveling public that thinks commercial airline travel could not get any worse. Facing the perfect financial storm, airlines are scrambling for deeper and wider cuts.
The airlines have spoken and the October schedules are published. Domestic flights have been cut by about 10% over last year in a third of the nation's busiest airports. This may just be the beginning of deeper cuts if fuel costs stay at record levels, or dare we think, continue to rise.
USA Today reports that "among the airports losing 10% or more of their seats in October vs. a year ago: Cincinnati, a Delta hub; Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, a Continental hub; Cleveland, another Continental hub; Pittsburgh; and Phoenix, a US Airways hub."
There will be fewer choices to the larger airports but many smaller American communities will be left with no regular commercial air service, according to the Air Transport Association.
A precarious balancing act within the airlines precipitates raising prices to cover higher costs causing decreased demand, which further pressures deeper cuts. The pendulum continues to swing.
United flight reductions will see 100 jets plucked from the skies and sidelined by the end of 2009. Fewer flights and planes in use is naturally followed by further job cuts. United announced it will layoff 950 pilots with another 1,100 non-pilot jobs on the cutting board. So much for the pilot shortage that was anticipated last year for the years ahead.
United's pilot cuts represent 15% of the total pilot force and is the first cockpit crew cuts by a major airline in the fuel related industry cost cutting measures.
Delta's managed a softer landing by incentivizing 4,000 workers to retire early or leave voluntarily. Continental plans to cut 3,000 jobs this fall.
Delta just announced it will start charging up to a $50 fee to cash in frequent flier miles. American and U.S. Air are expected to follow suit with a charge to fly free on miles.
The view from Southwest remains sunny as long as they have hedged fuel in their jets. They anticipate a modest increase in capacity.
The overall picture is very serious. "The A.T.A. predicts the domestic airlines will collectively lose a minimum of $7 billion this year, and as much as $13 billion, which would eclipse the $11 billion the carriers lost during 2002."
The New York Times quotes Gary Chase, an industry analyst with Lehman Brothers, “The U.S. industry is undertaking a historic restructuring. Air fares, which are up about 17 percent this year on average, may rise as much as 40 percent within the next four years."
The New York Times makes a very sobering statement about the long-term consequences of downsizing of the airlines:
Not an industry that can turn on a dime. This is the best it's going to be for the foreseeable future.
"... the downsizing of the airlines is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Carriers are selling off hundreds of older, less-efficient planes, so the industry would have trouble growing sharply again even if oil prices were to drop and the economy were to rebound quickly."
Between the economy and the cost of oil, there is no crystal ball to predict the outcome for the beleaguered airline industry. With one goal in mind...to remain standing...they continue to persevere, as do the passengers.