Airline service sputters

With more delays and lost luggage, the past year was one of the worst ever for airline service.

Published January 10, 2007

Some lowlights in airline customer service from 2006:

- For eight hours, passengers were stuck inside an American Airlines jet on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, after thunderstorms kept it from landing in Dallas on Dec. 29. Toilets overflowed; snacks and drinks quickly ran out.

- In August, customers reported 437,000 pieces of luggage lost, delayed, damaged or stolen - a record for a single month and an average of almost 14,100 per day.

- Commuter carrier Comair operated five flights to and from New York's Kennedy International Airport that were late 96 percent of the time for the entire month of November.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the year just ended shapes up as the worst for airline performance since 2000. Final numbers aren't in from the federal government until next month, but about 25 percent of flights were late, the fourth consecutive year of increasing delays.

The number and rate of mishandled bags will almost certainly be the highest since the government started keeping records in 1997.

How did things get so bad? Airlines are squeezing more people into fewer planes and flying aircraft more hours each day.

Big full-service carriers cut nearly 30 percent of their workers since 2002, as the industry struggled through a prolonged slump caused by weak demand and discount competitors, then skyrocketing fuel prices.

Something had to give, says Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com, a travel Web site.

"They're simply trying to do too much with too little," he says. "Consumers benefit from lower ticket prices. But they pay in comfort, the increased number of lost bags ... and bumped passengers."

Travel columnist Joe Brancatelli says the problem isn't just fewer people, but people unhappy about taking pay cuts under the threat of their company going belly-up. "It's a toxic stew," he says.

A few airlines admit to getting caught short-handed during occasional storms or other disruptions. But smaller payrolls don't translate into too few bag handlers, pilots or flight attendants, says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry group for major airlines.

Most of the cuts resulted from contracting out aircraft maintenance and reservation center jobs.

An unusually stormy year and an outdated, inefficient air traffic control system were the main culprits for the poor performance numbers of 2006, says Castelveter.

"They're trying to have the right amount of employees," he says. "No airline wants a flight delay."

Perhaps no industry sweats its performance numbers more than the airlines, says Winship. But with the business poised to post a profit for 2006 - its first in years - carriers must make tough choices.

"It's not that they don't get it," he says. "But they have to make trade-offs, never mind the consequences."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.