By Joe Brancatelli
July 22, 2010 -- As soon as I finish this column, I'll climb in my car and drive 400 miles one-way instead of flying.

There is something seriously wrong with that if you are a frequent flyer. When things are so bad that you drive instead of fly, you can tell that things are reaching the breaking point. I mean, who wants to deal with security if you don't have to do it? Who wants to deal with packed planes when you don't have to do it? Who even wants to deal with the airport if you don't have to do it?

That said, however, we've got some issues here to discuss. And, let's be honest, next week I'll be flying again…

Do airlines do a better job handling your checked bags now that most of them charge for the privilege? Short answer: a little. Based on Transportation Department figures for May, the most recent available, there were 10 percent fewer reports of "mishandled" bags in 2010 than in 2009.

Yet an old trend continues: The major carriers' commuter airlines do an awful job of handling checked bags. Or, perhaps more accurately, the reporting system is rigged to "blame" commuter lines whenever a commuter-to-mainline connection is involved.

The bottom line, however, does not change: If you are on an itinerary where a commuter carrier hands off luggage to a mainline carrier or vice versa, the chance of bags going missing increases exponentially. And since more than half the flights on U.S. carriers are now actually operated by commuter airlines, well, do the math.

Consider: As an industry, U.S. carriers rack up 3.3 baggage reports for each 1,000 travelers. But American Eagle, a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines, is more than twice as bad (6.9). Comair (5.1) and Pinnacle (5.3), which operate for Delta, are also dreadful. Also far below average: ASA (Delta and United) at 4.0; SkyWest (AirTran, Delta and United) at 4.4; and ExpressJet (United and Continental) at 4.9.

Is it safe in business class? I mean, safe from theft of personal items? Apparently not. A 47-year-old Air France flight attendant dubbed the "mile-high pickpocket" was caught following complaints about missing cash, credit cards and jewelry. When confronted by evidence--investigators compared her flight schedule with the pattern of complaints from passengers--the woman admitted to 26 different thefts. Her haul? Everything from antique watches to checkbooks as well as cash and Cartier jewelry. The flight attendant, identified only as Lucie R., was also fingered by her peers, who noted she drove an expensive sports car and had purchased apartments close to airports in several cities. "She knew that many passengers would fall asleep following a meal and alcohol," one source explained to a British newspaper. "This is the time she would start rifling through their property."

The first month of results are in after the Department of Transportation's "three-hour" rule for tarmac holds and the news is good. In May, only five flights were held on runways for more than three hours compared to 34 in May, 2009. Moreover, there was only a slight uptick in cancellation of flights that were delayed between 2 or 3 hours. In May, with about 550,000 total departures, only 49 flights in the 2-3-hour delay frame were cancelled compared to 26 in some months earlier this year. In other words, faced with stiff fines (as much as $27,500 a passenger) for breaking the DOT's new rules, airlines adjusted.

In fact, since year-over-year on-time figures and total cancellation rates were nearly identical in May, we can conclude (however preliminarily) that airlines are not as stupid as they sometimes claim to be. They are not going to cancel flights willy-nilly because of the three-hour rule. Why? Because massive cancellations would cost them heaps of cash, screw up their network operations and leave them with thousands of passengers who need reaccommodation.

And as I asked a couple of month ago, when airlines were warning of massive cancellations: Where is the constituency for sitting on an aircraft for hours without food, water or disembarkation rights in the hope of an eventual take-off? I don't know a single business traveler who was willing to let the airlines continue to hold them hostage.

In my Portfolio column this week, I talk a little about the voodoo economics airlines rely on to justify and expand their a la carte pricing initiatives. And just as it was posting yesterday came a supposed "guide to ancillary revenue" compiled by an airline consultancy and its client, a third-party computer-reservation system. The guide claims "ancillary revenue became a crucial component of the revenue mix for all types of carriers" and ancillary revenue grew 43 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.

Sounds impressive, eh? The problem? The "ancillary revenue" component was drawn so broadly as to be meaningless. Besides the obvious unbundled services--checked bags fees, in-flight food sales--the consultant also threw in the galley sink: revenue airlines generate from commissions on hotel rooms, car rentals and travel insurance sold through their respective Web sites and even revenue airlines produce when they sell frequent flyer miles to their partners. For all I know, the study even includes the money employees feed into vending machines in airline offices.

But this is the "science" and "economics" airlines use to model their businesses and mainstream media bobble heads use to judge trends in commercial aviation. Yet all of them ignore Southwest Airlines, the 800-pound gorilla at the airport. It has recorded a profit for 37 consecutive years by keeping it simple. Its competitors generally don't make a profit for 37 consecutive days, yet every crackpot idea they come up with is treated like received wisdom from Bernard Baruch or JP Morgan.

Memo to the airline industry: Want to run a profitable airline? Do what Southwest does. Memo to the media covering airlines: Want to understand how to run a commercial airline profitably? Watch what Southwest does.

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 © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.