March 22, 2001 -- This is the irrefutable truth: The pace of business travel exactly mirrors the state of business. When business is good, business travel booms. When business in general turns down, business travel in specific slows down.
Unless you've been stuck at an airport and held incommunicado for a few weeks--which is not a totally unlikely prospect if you're a United or Northwest flyer--you've already figured out that business has turned down. The Dow's lost a digit, NASDAQ has vaporized and corporations around the nation are frantically slashing and burning to shore up their plummeting bottom lines.
One of the first things to go when Corporate America cuts is business travel. Some bean counter looks at the numbers, realizes T&E is a huge expenditure (often trailing only salaries and information systems) and starts hacking away. No business-class or first-class flying, no limos, cheaper hotels and, often, less travel overall.
This business-travel contraction invariably happens sooner in the corporate-cutback process rather than later, so the major airlines are already feeling the pinch. The four largest carriers--American, United, Delta and Northwest--will all report losses in the calendar first quarter. The prospect for the rest of the year is equally grim. The business-travel boom that propelled the airlines to record profits and unprecedented arrogance is over.
But restrain your glee at the prospect of the airlines getting the financial comeuppance they so richly deserve. The airlines are gonna get cut, but frequent flyers will be the ones who bleed. The airlines have been nasty, niggling and rapacious when times were good. You have no idea how cheap, petty, absurd, rude and unreliable they get when they lose money.
I'm a grizzled veteran of three or four of these downturns, so I know: What's coming is not pretty. The major airlines are going to make your life on the road more miserable than ever before. Here's what to watch for:
REDUCED FRILLSFlying isn't all that frilly to begin with, but whatever little niceties and perks that remain are likely to disappear as the airlines start identifying "excess" cost. Meal service, such as it is, will be reduced. There will be fewer magazines on board, fewer flowers on board, fewer blankets and pillows, fewer in-flight diversions and fewer perks and snacks in the club lounges. Everything will look and feel chintzier than ever. First- and business-class flyers will suffer right along with coach travelers.
United, traditionally first with the least, has already swung into action on this front. First-class transcon flyers have surely noticed that the airline's Deli Buffet service has disappeared. United admits it is eliminating table linens and hot-towel service as well as reducing menu choices and cutting out more costly food-service items. Also gone: McDonald's "Friendly Skies" meals for the kiddies.
REDUCED STAFFINGWaiting too long at the check-in counter now? Get ready for even longer lines because the airlines will reduce staffing everywhere. You'll wait longer to check bags, longer to get your call to the frequent-flyer service center answered, longer before a complaint is resolved. Wherever they are permitted by law and contract, airlines will cut the number of flight attendants, too. Want a preview? Fly Northwest. Northwest cut the number of attendants working its flight several years ago. On some long-haul service, there are at least two fewer flight attendants per flight than there were two years ago.
REDUCED SCHEDULESPrepare to juggle your schedule because the airlines will be reducing theirs. Some existing flights will disappear with little or no notice. New flights that the airlines have already announced will never actually be launched. Some routes will be abandoned outright and without advance warning.
MORE CANCELLATIONSAs passenger traffic falls, airlines will start "combining" or canceling flights that have light loads. You'll arrive at your airport one day only to find your flight was canceled for some mysterious reason that the gate agent can't reasonably explain. Chances are it'll be because there simply weren't enough passengers that day and the airline decided it was better to juggle equipment and cancel flights.
TATTY CABINSYou'll notice more dirt and debris in the cabins of your upcoming flights. Why? Airlines will cut back on cleaning crews. You'll also see more broken service items: seats that don't recline; malfunctioning video monitors; defective audio plugs; burned-out reading lights; overhead bins that don't open; and lavatories that malfunction. Why? Airlines will be deferring maintenance wherever and whenever possible.
MORE MAINTENANCE PROBLEMSThere are numerous ways to legally cut maintenance costs and the airlines will pursue every one. One favorite: slashing or eliminating the on-site inventory of replacement parts. That means if your flight develops a mechanical before departure, you'll sit on the ground waiting for the part to be ferried in from some distant maintenance base. There will be more outright cancellations, too, as airlines begin to thin out the ranks of their mechanics.
MORE FARES YOU CAN'T HAVESince most airlines only know one way to stimulate traffic--cut fares for discretionary leisure travelers--watch for a blizzard of dramatic summer fare sales. They won't all be advertised in the papers--limited-distribution outlets like the Internet, E-mail and coupons are increasingly popular--but it really doesn't matter where you hear about them because you probably won't qualify.
I don't mean to be all gloom and doom here. There may be some good news in the next several months. For one thing, as the majors reduce service to heretofore unthinkably low levels, more frequent flyers may be disgusted enough to try alternate carriers such as Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue. Then they'll realize the excellent value proposition these airlines offer.
And if traffic continues to plummet, that means less crowded cabins, a better shot at upgrades and maybe better availability of frequent-flyer award seats. Fewer travelers also means less frenetic airports and, perhaps, fewer delays than forecast this summer.
By and large, however, I urge you to heed the warning of Bob Dylan. It is a hard rain that's gonna fall, so dig out your oversized golf umbrellas and run for cover.This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.