April 06, 2005

Airline quality expected to keep declining

As morale and manpower have declined across the airline industry, things are likely to get worse than better, especially at the troubled legacy carriers, the co-author of an academic study of airline quality released Monday said.

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Current conditions are similar to those in 2000, when the overloaded air travel system was fraught with delays and other problems, before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks severely curbed air travel. Now, air travel is back up to pre-2001 levels, but the airlines are struggling to keep up due to the recent massive layoffs, inadequate airport infrastructure to handle the increased traffic, and low morale.

"I hope (this year's decline) is a blip, but I expect we'll see a decline in quality next year as well," study co-author Dean Headley told United Press International. "Legacy carriers are at particular risk ... the cumbersome structure they've built up over the years is coming home to roost."

More and more, legacy carrier customers, once guaranteed luxuries like access to airport lounges and in-flight meals, are seeing such perks stripped away, while travelers are simultaneously getting stuck on planes and in airports for longer and longer, as well as being encouraged to interact mostly with machines. With the difference between the legacy and budget carriers narrowing, travelers will take the cheapest and fastest flight regardless of the airline just to get where they're going as quick as they can.

Not that it's just legacy carriers that need some work. Only four out of the 14 carriers studied -- AirTran, Atlantic Southeast, JetBlue and United -- showed improvements over last year.

Overall, on-time flights declined to 78.3 percent in 2004 for 82 percent in 2003. Involuntary denied boarding per passenger rose to 0.87 per 10,000 passengers in 2004 from 0.86 in 2003. Consumer complaints rose to 0.76 per 100,000 passengers in 2004, up from 0.67 in 2003. Mishandled baggage per 1,000 customers rose to 4.83 in 2004 from 4 in 2003.

One important fact to keep in mind is that the actual number of complaints is probably three to four times what's recorded, said Headley, who co-wrote the report with Brent Bowen, director of the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"The DOT's the only place we can get an accurate count of complaints, so if (customers) only complained to the airline we'd never know about it, but this is all we can get out hands on."

Though complaints are up and passenger traffic is up, government data shows that legacy carriers have cut about 150,000 full- and part-time jobs over the past four years, while low-cost airlines have added fewer than 10,000 workers, the New York Times reported Sunday.

"You take 5,000 or 7,000 or 10,000 people out of the loop (at an airline), that's noticeable," Headley, associate professor of marketing and entrepreneurship in the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State, told United Press International. "It's hard to complain to a television screen kiosk."

He described trying to perform tasks like checking luggage at such kiosks as "next to impossible."

Of the 14 airlines listed, budget airlines ranked best, with JetBlue taking the top spot overall, followed by Air Tran and Southwest. United Airlines came in fourth, the highest-ranked legacy carrier. Next came Alaska Airlines, America West, Northwest, American, Continental, and ATA. Bringing up the rear were Delta, U.S. Airways, American Eagle, SkyWest, COMAIR, and Atlantic Southeast.

Besides a shortage of humans, another big problem is that airlines are making customers take longer flights and wait longer between flights in some airports, because the airports can't fly out enough planes during busy times to accommodate all the traffic, Headley said. Such congested airports are typically hubs for legacy carriers, which operate on a hub-and-spoke system that is not as efficient as budget carriers, which don't use hubs but rather fly point-to-point, with less extra stops.

For example, Headley said, travelers who fly out of Wichita on a legacy carrier typically have to fly to two hub cities before reaching their destination.

"The traveling public is being asked to give up more of their time to accommodate a congested system," he said.

If legacy carriers don't make some headway soon, he said, it's likely that eventually they will abandon the domestic market and concentrate on their lucrative international routes.

"You might have a domestic (carrier) that ... doesn't do America any more," he said.

In fact, in a speech last December, U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary for Policy, Jeffrey Shane, said that the U.S. airline industry was in such bad financial shape that perhaps it was time to open the U.S. airline industry so U.S. carriers could benefit from international market opportunities.

U.S. officials "need to consider seriously whether there is any continuing rationale for restricting our airlines' access to the global capital marketplace," he said.

Shane said that U.S. airports would also benefit from continued easing of federal regulations in regard to airport financing, which would allow airports greater freedom to do things like charge passenger fees to help fund capacity expansion.

Such expansion is desperately needed, with U.S. aviation system demands expected to triple by 2025, Shane said.

Headley, however, said he doesn't see the U.S. aviation market opening up anytime soon, as foreign markets likely would not want the competition from U.S. carriers.

"If we let them in here they will have to let us in there," he said.

Posted by keefner at April 6, 2005 12:27 AM