net.wars: Flight risk

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 September 2004

Flying from London to Philadelphia is a lot more humane when you don't have to worry about running out of battery life. Watch the power level in your airline, though ... and take the train.

Wendy M Grossman

There were rumours in the airline industry as long ago as last spring that US Airways was unlikely to last the summer without going back into bankruptcy, and last Sunday they were proved true.

It's a nasty business with a lot of collateral damage. The airline is trying to get out of paying its pension obligations and to convince the unions to accept lower wages and benefits. Media opinion is mixed about the airline's prospects, but it's losing $1 million a day and it's facing new competition in some of its routes from new-style, low-cost carriers - Southwest, for example, has started offering services from Philadelphia, an important US Airways hub. The prospects do not seem good for my preferred airline. Preferred because it offers laptop power outlets at every seat in coach class (standard) on almost all its long-haul flights.

There's going to be a lot of collateral damage if the airline can't survive. There are a lot of places, like Ithaca, my old hometown, where US Airways is the only carrier. There are others where it's not the only carrier but it's still the most important one, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, whose business community depends on it. EDS has already issued a profit warning due to the possibility that the airline might default on its bills. And that's to say nothing of the more than 27,000 people who would lose their jobs and the countless more who've already retired and are worrying about their pensions.

All of this goes back to the mid 1970s and a kindly man named Alfred E. Kahn, who was the Dean of Arts and Sciences when I was at Cornell (and who, incidentally, played the Lord Chancellor in the 1973 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe in a large, prosthetic nose).

Kahn, then and since, was very proud of having deregulated the airline industry as part of his work in the Carter administration. In the nearly 25 years since deregulation, the price drop is astonishing. I pay now roughly the same price to travel internationally as I did in 1976, while everything else has gone up. If you include the occasional free ticket from frequent flier miles and the frequent upgrades, I'm doing even better.

Much of the industry's troubles have been blamed on 9/11, but in the end the reason the attacks had such a devastating effect on the airlines is that they were already nearing trouble. Since then, some people gave up flying because they didn't feel safe in the air; but a lot more people gave up flying because they couldn't stand the security hassle. If your travel time is five hours from New York to Boston (45 minutes to get to airport, two and a half hours going through security and waiting in noisy, crowded conditions, and a cramped 45-minute flight in which you don't get so much as a glass of juice, followed by more waiting time while you reclaim your baggage, find a taxi, and get into town), you might as well take the much more comfortable and much pleasanter train.

It's still baffling. Every expert now is talking about the "overcapacity" that "plagues" the airline industry. And yet every flight you're on is full (and everyone hates a full flight).

And yet: no one is blaming the Internet. If you believed the hype ten years ago, by now the airlines should be collapsing because no one needs to travel any more. We can all sit in our houses with our broadband and play with the holograms, like the characters in Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun. Instead, the airlines are collapsing because their industry is seeing the same kinds of changes as telecommunications did in response to the Internet and computers did in response to Dell: someone's come up with a cheaper way to sell the same goods at lower cost. And one of those lower costs is being able to sell tickets online.

The problem is that airline travel is an essential part of our infrastructure, particularly in the US. It might not matter very much if you could no longer find a flight from London to Edinburgh; it's only 400 miles, and you could drive it in seven hours or take a train in five hours. But if you live in Charlotte and routinely do business with people in London or San Francisco, it's not going to help you a lot if a three-day train ride is your only alternative, or if you have to drive 500 miles to the nearest airport that serves those locations. The US cannot afford for its airlines to fail.

Because the fact is that the more we do business remotely the more need we have to travel and meet the far-flung people we do business with. Somehow we always manage to get places and the desire to travel seems to be hard-wired - even in the days of boat travel, Ellis Island records show the same people entering the US multiple times. But we will look back on the apparently doomed "legacy carriers" as a golden age compared to the low-cost era that's coming next.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).