Unhappy holidays

December 28, 2004

NOTHING CAN squeeze the last drop of joy out of the season like the wringer of air travel, and this past weekend was a particularly woeful time for customers of US Airways and Comair, the Cincinnati-based commuter airline. US Airways canceled several hundred flights and misplaced a mountain of luggage.

Airline officials blamed Thursday's snowstorm and a suspiciously high number of employees who called in sick. Comair passengers had it even worse. The Delta Airlines subsidiary scrubbed all of its Saturday flights and most of its Sunday traffic because of a computer failure. The airline isn't expected to fully resume its schedule until Wednesday.

Weather-related delays are understandable this time of year but getting stranded for excuses that "don't past the test," as US Airways CEO Bruce Lakefield called his employees' apparent sick-out protest, is particularly infuriating. Air travel on a good day is bad enough. Losing your bags or getting stuck in an airport because of incompetent management or unhappy employees is enough to make a person swear off holiday travel altogether.

Alas, this isn't just about the holidays. Some of the nation's biggest airlines -- American, United, Delta, Continental, Northwest and US Airways -- continue to swim in red ink. Combined, they're expected to lose about $5.5 billion this year and cut thousands of jobs. US Airways has been slashing costs right and left but its finances continue to sink.

Small wonder that its employees aren't happy. Between the cuts in pay, reductions in pension and health benefits, and work rule changes, they must be wondering if their jobs are worth saving.

The industry's problem isn't a lack of customers. Air travel has finally bounced back from its post-9/11 swoon. The skies are crowded with passengers again. But this fateful combination of failing airlines and hectic airports only raises the chances of more disruptions like this weekend's. Analysts predict there are going to be fewer carriers, fewer flights, less competition and less service in the future. It's the trade-off consumers pay for industry deregulation and the affordable ticket prices offered by low-fare airlines like Southwest and JetBlue.

Consumers can make informed choices, of course. They can stay away from unreliable airlines and support the dependable. But exactly which ones would that be? The standards of service seem to be sinking so fast it's hard to tell.

And how many choices are there? About one-third of the nation's 609 airports are served by just one airline. Suddenly, dashing around the world in a tiny sleigh with eight or nine flying reindeer doesn't sound so ridiculous. At least Santa gets to his holiday destinations on time -- and with fewer baggage problems.

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