tampabay.com

Summer meltdown ahead for airlines?

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published May 2, 2007


Recent winter storms exposed how things work - or don't work - in the new math of airline economics.

Using fewer employees to handle more customers and flights has nudged carriers back into profitability. But when Mother Nature throws a curve, airline operations go haywire and can take days to recover.

Remember the JetBlue Valentine's Week Massacre? Get ready for the Summer Bummer.

Summer always brings hordes of family vacationers to the skies. Thunderstorms are the weather wild card. On routes in the steamy Southeast, like Tampa-Atlanta, regular fliers consider them occupational hazards.

But with carriers now stretched so thin, it won't take much of a hiccup to delay or disrupt your flight this summer.

Demand for air travel keeps growing, but airline employment isn't nearly keeping pace. February marked the first time in 26 months that the number of workers went up - by a mere 0.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The number of commercial and business jets is also on the rise. That strains an air traffic control system that lacks modern satellite tracking technology to let more planes fly safely in the same airspace.

One more problem: airliners are packed tighter than ever. Major carriers shifted big jets to more lucrative international routes and replaced them with single-aisle or tiny regional jets for domestic flights.

Airlines now report filling about 80 percent of their seats, a record high.

"Eighty percent implies that on the more popular flights, you're at or close to 100 percent capacity," says Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com, a travel Web site.

If the airline cancels your flight, there's likely no way to find a seat on the next flight or maybe even the next day. Some people stranded by the winter storms couldn't get a flight for three days or more.

Airlines say they're ready for the summer crush. US Airways is hiring 1,000 employees, most for its Philadelphia and Charlotte hubs, to handle the influx of customers and make up for expected attrition.

New technology, such as airport ticketing kiosks, lets them handle more customers with fewer ticket counter staffers, say airlines. But agents get overwhelmed when things go bad and passengers want new flights.

Airlines had to cut costs in the wake of the travel slowdown after the Sept. 11 attacks and higher fuel prices, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group.

"Carriers continue to operate lean and mean," he said. "They can't have multimillion-dollar airplanes waiting for a flight to cancel. When it's a weather problem, they have to accommodate people with fewer resources."

Lightning that threatens ramp workers can close down an airport for hours. But thunderstorms typically cause airlines to delay flights, not cancel them.

Arrivals at Tampa International Airport fared well last summer, with 81 percent running on time, according to FlightStats, a Web site that tracks airline flight information.

But there were laggards. American Airlines Flight 1282 to LaGuardia International in New York was late for nearly half of its 153 flights. Delta's Flight 1803 to John F. Kennedy International was even worse: late 53 percent of the time.

Because the only flight that matters is yours - or the one you're supposed to be on - check out tips for avoiding summer flying hassles.

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

Fast Facts:

Tips for (almost) hassle-free summer flying

- Book your flight as early in the day as possible. Thunderstorms typically hit during warm afternoon hours.

- Check your connections. Avoid itineraries that give you less than an hour to change planes in busy hubs.

- Keep essentials like medicine, glasses and valuables in your carry-on bag. A lost checked bag can take days to catch up with you.

- Fly one day ahead for a cruise trip or can't-miss events such as a wedding.