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THE NEXT SEASON OF OUR DISCONTENT
By Joe Brancatelli
April 12, 2007 -- Shakespeare never did tell us what came after the winter of our discontent. But why do I think that the winter of our discontent on the road is going to be followed by a summer of disgust?

I know it's hard to believe--what with airlines nearing record lows in on-time and baggage-handling performance and snow still falling from the skies a month into spring--but the summer travel season is shaping up to be even worse than this past winter and our dreadful spring.

I fervently wish I had better news to report, but here's what I see coming down the road in the months to come. Run for cover, fellow travelers. It's gonna be ugly.

CHAOS AT THE AIRPORTS
At least two dozen major airports are now at or above their pre-9/11 traffic levels. Remember what it was like back in 2000? Well, then, think about that kind of traffic this summer, but with about 150,000 fewer airline employees to help check us in, move our checked luggage and unsnarl the inevitable computer glitches, weather disruptions and management snafus. Add the system-clogging effects of 37- and 50-seat jets. Throw in the martinets at the Transportation Security Administration making us separate our lotions and potions in tiny plastic bags. Pretty dreary, huh?

According to the Transportation Department's latest Air Travel Consumer Report, the airline industry is operating at just 66.8 percent on-time. That's one in three flights running late. Want to bet that one in two flights will run late during the busiest weeks of the summer? The "mishandled" baggage rate is now about one incident for every 125 passengers. That's up from about one in 200 flyers just a year or so ago. I suspect this summer will see us crack the one in a hundred passengers mark.

ALL'S FAIR IN THE NEW FARE GAME
The summer of 2007 appears to be when the paradigm will finally shift in airline pricing. Much as I'd like to report that the wackos who run airline pricing have decided to adopt simpler, flatter, fairer fares, I can't. Instead, they are going to the la carte system.

Just this week, for example, United Airlines began imposing a $10 surcharge on flyers who choose to use LAX. Beginning today, American Airlines says that flyers who call the carrier directly to change existing seat assignments will pay $15 for the privilege. Earlier this month, Aer Lingus began charging as much as €15 for seat assignments on shorter-haul flights. Last month, of course, Spirit changed its checked-luggage policy and instituted a pay-for-all-bags regimen. Earlier this year, British Airways began charging up to £120 to check a second bag on some flights. And last year Northwest Airlines began charging for so-called "choice" coach seat assignments.

Is la carte pricing bad? Not necessarily, although I notice that airlines aren't really "unbundling" fares. They are just charging more for selected services that were once included in the base fare. But the real problem is that la carte pricing creates still more confusion and resentment in an already unhappy marketplace. Different carriers charge for different services at different rates. And not one of them has the decency to make their la carte pricing decisions easily accessible. Want proof? See how long it takes for you to find a notice of the new United or American fees on their respective Web sites.

THE LOOMING SAFETY CRISIS
One thing that the airline industry could boast about in recent years was safe operations. Day-to-day flying in the United States and Canada has been remarkably uneventful in recent years. But in their rush to cut costs, the airlines are putting that enviable record at risk. More and more important maintenance is being farmed out to foreign repair shops that are out of the reach of any effective Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight. Pilots and flight attendants are being pushed to and beyond the brink of exhaustion by new work rules. The carriers are also filling the skies with smaller and smaller jets that stretch the limited force of air traffic controllers. To accommodate these fleets of flying sardine cans, we've already reduced the separation between planes in flight and that reduces the safety margin. And as revealed by last year's Comair crash in Lexington, Kentucky, the FAA often ignores its own staffing rules for air traffic controllers. It's a very dangerous mix and we may pay the price for the shortsighted policies this summer.

SIMMERING LABOR RESENTMENT
As the big airlines began eking out small profits last year, airline management did what it always does: It gave itself huge bonuses and pay raises. At the same time, though, the bosses continued to demand concessions from their remaining pool of rank-and-file workers. Last year, for example, Northwest Airlines imposed unilateral work rules and wage concessions on its flight attendants. Yet news leaked out last week that the airline's imminent emergence from bankruptcy will reward management with as much as 5 percent of the new company. Management's explanation? They made concessions during the bankruptcy and deserve to be rewarded for their sacrifice. The pilots at American Airlines are infuriated by a new round of management bonuses due to kick in next month. United's rank-and-file labors under concessionary contracts while management continues to line its pockets with big raises and bonuses. Many US Airways employees work under a patchwork of contracts negotiated with pre-merger carriers and the company's management has handled labor relations almost as poorly as it has run the airline's operations.

In other words, the folks who make the airlines run are restless and resentful after years of givebacks and continued management abuses. And business travelers always suffer when airline bigwigs mistreat employees.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.