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"It's a great time to fly"

Sunday, December 8, 2002

It's a great time to fly 
By John Gillie
The Tacoma (WA) News Tribune 

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, air travel and aggravation
have been close associates. 

At first there were canceled or delayed flights, then miles-long
security lines. Two-hour airport waits. Intrusive searches. Then came
the shoe bomber, sieve-like security and now shoulder-launched
antiaircraft missiles.

Airlines lost billions. Thousands of airline employees lost their jobs.
Boeing laid off 30,000 workers.

But for all the anxiety and angst, the air travel crisis hasn't been
without its compensating benefits, particularly for passengers who
braved the early months of uncertainty.

Statistics say that at least by several important measures, air travel
is better, cheaper and less aggravating now than it was 15 months ago.

Consider these 10 facts:

  1. Fares are lower.

The airlines don't like it, but air fares remain substantially below the
levels they charged two years ago. According to figures compiled by the
Air Transport Association, average domestic air fares were nearly 18
percent lower in September this year compared with September 2000. (The
ATA uses 2000 figures because the September 2001 statistics were
distorted by the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks).

"Passengers are currently enjoying airline prices that have not been
available since the late 1980s, excluding federal taxes and fees," said
ATA chief economist David Swierenga.

With United Airlines headed into bankruptcy or a major reorganization
and the slack winter travel months ahead, the pressure is on airlines to
lower fares even further to fill up their planes.

Those financial pressures have brought some amazing bargains: American
Airlines recently advertised a $299 deal from East Coast and Midwest
cities to London. Included were round-trip airfare and three nights in a
London hotel.

Web specials routinely offer fares cheaper than they were 25 years ago.
This weekend, for instance, Sea-Tac fliers could have flown round trip
to Denver for $169, to Oakland and San Jose for $99 and to Washington,
D.C., for $239 on Alaska Airlines.

And business travelers are seeing astronomical last-minute fares drop to
being merely expensive as airlines restructure their fares to attract
more business fliers.

Both American and Delta airlines are experimenting with walk-up business
fares that cut prices for last-minute travelers by up to 40 percent over
the old fares. On a coast-to-coast, full-fare round trip, those changes
can cut fares by up to $800. Other airlines are matching Delta's and
American's fares on a case-by-case basis.

  2. Planes and airports are less crowded.

Fewer fliers mean less hassle and a better chance of getting that
coveted aisle or window seat instead of the dreaded middle seat.
Industry figures show revenue passenger miles were down nearly 13
percent in September 2002 over the same month in 2000.

And for most airlines, planes are leaving with more seats empty - in
spite of their best efforts to fill seats with passengers paying deep

American Airlines' November traffic figures, for instance, show the
percentage of seats filled systemwide - called the "load factor" in
airline jargon - dropped 2.3 percent compared with the same month in
2000. On American's Pacific routes, the load factor dropped even more,
8.7 percent.

United Airlines' domestic load factor in November fell 3.5 percent over
the previous year.

And Seattle-based Alaska Airlines reported that just 64.8 percent of its
seats were filled in November, compared with 67.7 percent last year. At
Alaska's sister airline, regional carrier Horizon Air, the November load
factor dropped by 5.3 percent.

Airport traffic figures reflect those same trends. Total passenger
traffic at Sea-Tac Airport through October is down 2.7 percent from
2001, and more than 6 percent from 2000. That means there were 1,444,124
fewer people crowding the ticket counters, the concourses and the gates
in the first 10 months of this year compared to two years ago.

  3. Airline fleets are newer.

Old air bases in California, Arizona, and Nevada are as crowded as
Safeco Field parking lots with mothballed older, less efficient
airliners. Airlines are favoring newer, less thirsty aircraft.

Those retirements have virtually eliminated Boeing 727s, older 737s,
early model 747s, Lockheed L-1011s and McDonnell-Douglas DC-9s and
DC-10s from some fleets. Even newer aircraft such as the
McDonnell-Douglas MD-11s in Delta's fleet - most of them less than 10
years old - are being sent to desert storage lots.

Those aircraft retirements mean the aircraft remaining are better
equipped and less likely to suffer maintenance delays.

  4. Security is better.

Government-trained and employed security workers now staff all American
airports. Initial results of the switch-over from private security
forces and their nearly minimum-wage workers suggest the new workers are
better trained, more knowledgeable and more numerous than the workers
they replaced.

After nightmarish lines immediately after Sept. 11, new equipment and
screening capacity typically means passengers now face a wait of 10
minutes or less for screening at most airports.

The federal government has taken steps to eliminate time-consuming
security procedures such as the questions about baggage formerly asked
at ticket counters. That speeds the check-in process. The Transportation
Security Administration is also testing new screening procedures that
will eliminate second screenings at the gate for selected passengers.

Meanwhile, airlines are nearly finished installing bullet-proof cockpit
doors, and air marshals are flying on selected flights to and from
airports such as Reagan National in Washington, D.C., to prevent
hijacking attempts.

  5. Pilots and cabin crews are more experienced.

Since Sept. 11, all but a few airlines such as Southwest and Alaska have
laid off thousands of their employees in an attempt to match their
capacity with their ticket sales. Under most union contracts, employees
with the least seniority and experience are the first to be laid off.

As a result, say industry experts, the average experience of airline
crews and ground personnel is several years higher than it was before
the terrorist attacks.

  6. Connecting times aren't as tight.

Big hub-and-spoke airlines such as American and United have expanded
connecting intervals at hub airports.

Those longer connecting times make for longer trips but result in fewer
misconnections and lost baggage, both costly items for the airlines.

The longer connections mean less sprinting down the long semi-circular
corridors at Dallas-Fort Worth and other big hubs and less anxiety about
late flights and missed connections for travelers.

  7. Competition is keener.

While some marginal airlines such as National and Vanguard have left the
market because of financial problems, the surviving competitors are more
keen to win new business.

Several major airlines' attempts to raise leisure fares failed when some
competitors, eager to win market share, decided not to follow suit.

Lower-cost carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier and Alaska are
trying to fly their way out of the doldrums rather than shrinking their
way to prosperity. That means new low-cost competitors on routes that
have been the nearly exclusive domain of the majors.

Since Sept. 11, for instance, JetBlue has added transcontinental flights
and is building a new West Coast hub in Long Beach, Calif. Southwest
expanded its reach with coast-to-coast flights for the first time, and
Alaska has ventured into new markets including Denver, Boston, Miami and
Washington, D.C.

  8. Frequent flier programs are more generous.

Airlines are using frequent flier mile awards to attract new travelers.
US Airways, for instance, is offering triple miles on some East Coast
routes. Alaska has made double-miles offers during slack travel times.
And some majors like American have lowered the number of miles needed to
earn trips to help burn off accumulated miles while the airline has
unfilled seats.

Alaska earlier this year gave its frequent fliers to Las Vegas free
round-trip tickets to the gambling capital during the winter months.

  9. More flights arrive on time.

One side effect of fewer flights and fewer passengers has been a
dramatic rise in airline on-time performance.

Alaska Airlines has seen its on-time performance rise steeply since air
traffic decreased. In October, Alaska's on-time performance rose to 81
percent from a 15-year average of 75.8 percent. But that improvement
still was only good for eighth place among the 10 major airlines the
federal Department of Transportation tracks.

Overall, those 10 airlines' average on-time performance was 84.7 percent
in October. United topped the list with more than 88 out of every 100 of
its flights on time. Continental was at the bottom of the ranking with
78.4 percent of its flights on time.

Over the last 15 years, airlines have averaged on-time performance of
78.2 percent, and until Sept. 11 on-time performance was falling. In the
last year, 82.2 percent of flights were on time.

  10. Consumer complaints about airline problems are down steeply. 

During the last full month before the Sept. 11 attacks, August 2001,
airline passengers filed 1,876 complaints about airline service with the
federal Department of Transportation. In the comparable month this year,
complaints dropped to just 735, a proportionately far greater decline
than the drop in airline passenger traffic.

A look at other statistics reported by the DOT might help explain why
the complaints have taken a nose dive.

Airlines, for instance, are overselling their flights less this year,
DOT statistics show. In the April-through-June period of 2002, denied
boardings because of airline overbookings were just 0.65 per 10,000
passengers. In the second quarter of 2001, the rate of denied boardings
was 0.88 per 10,000 passengers.

Baggage handling was better this year than last, federal statistics
show. In August 2001, airlines misdirected 215,608 bags. In the same
month this year, the number of mishandled bags dropped to 165,869.

Dodging the hassles

The statistics below could help you maximize your chances of finding an
airline that treats its passengers well. The figures apply to October


The fewest

Southwest, 0.3 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

Alaska, 0.38 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

The most

United, 1.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

Northwest, 1.09 complaints per 100,000 passengers.


The fewest

American Eagle, 0 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.

America West, 0.07 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.

The most

Delta, 0.86 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.

Southwest, 0.81 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.


The least

US Airways, 2.47 lost bags per 1,000 passengers.

Alaska, 2.61 lost bags per 1,000 passengers.

The most

American Eagle, 8.42 lost bags per 1,000 passengers.

American, 3.13 lost bags per 1,000 passengers.

Sources: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines

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