Clear Skies, Empty Runways

How the recession could be good for airline passengers.

The recession could be good for airline passengers

As I sat on a plane last year, covering my ears to block out the cacophony of a half-dozen deal jockeys barking into their cell phones and even more screaming children—as well as pounding my seat tray in rage as the captain informed us that our plane, parked on a LaGuardia runway, was 22nd for takeoff—a fellow passenger began singing the praises of a passengers’ bill of rights. That sure sounded nice, I responded, but the only thing that will really improve the experience of flying in America is a recession.

Let me explain.

Despite all the obstacles—foolish security measures, rising delays, fuel surcharges, and airlines that made passengers pay for everything but oxygen—air travel grew steadily during the just-concluded economic expansion. As years of sustained prosperity caused the system to burst at its seams, policy wonks tried to craft incentives that would encourage airlines to stop cramming so many flights into the overtaxed aviation infrastructure. In recent months, the insanely high price of jet fuel ($3.22 per gallon last week), the credit crunch, and the slowing economy have done what regulators and politicians were unable to do: persuade airlines to give up valued landing slots.

When the economy goes south, as it is doing now, the green-eyeshade types reassert themselves. In corporate America, business trips are among the first budget items to get slashed. (I’m guessing the number of people flying to subprime-mortgage-broker conventions is waaay down this year.) Among consumers, travel (especially to visit in-laws) frequently leads the list of discretionary items sacrificed on the altar of frugality. Hundreds of Bear Stearns bankers surely downgraded spring break plans from a beach week at Paradise Island to a weekend at Grandma’s.

In the fall of 2001, the last time the economy slumped—a state of affairs aggravated by the events of 9/11—the number of monthly aircraft departures plummeted about 15 percent from the prior year’s totals. In January 2008, when the slowdown was just beginning, U.S. carriers operated 1.5 percent fewer flights than they had in January 2007, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. January marked the third straight month of year-over-year declines in commercial flights. The trend has since accelerated as many airlines have involuntarily reduced capacity. In the past month, Aloha Airlines and ATA both filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. When it went bust last week, discount airline Skybus knocked 74 more daily flights out of the system. (Frontier Airlines filed for Chapter 11 on Friday, though it plans to keep operating.)

The failure of these marginal airlines removed a few flights only. But larger, still-solvent airlines are following suit. US Airways has KO’d 30 percent of the overnight flights that had turned Las Vegas into a hot after-hours hub. Delta and Northwest have said they plan to cut capacity by 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively, later this year. And should the two airlines resume merger talks, the parking lots for mothballed jets in the Arizona desert could be expanding.

Since a Gulfstream V carrying a half-dozen fat cats essentially takes up the same amount of runway and airspace as a jet carrying 160 middle managers, the rapid growth in the private-jet market has also helped contribute to the misery of the middle-class flier. While data on the use of corporate jets are hard to come by, the FAA reports that “general aviation” flights (the category into which corporate jets fall) at airports with control towers fell 1.8 percent from January 2007 to January 2008.

That trend is likely intensifying as well. After all, many such planes are booked by deal-making executives visiting clients and kicking the tires on companies they want to buy. But mergers-and-acquisitions activity is way off, with the value of deals in the first quarter of 2008 down 50 percent from the first quarter of 2007, according to Thomson Financial. Far fewer hedge-fund managers are booking charters from New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to celebrate the conclusion of a deal.

With fewer planes in the air and fewer passengers pushing their shoes through security machines, the flying experience should theoretically be improving. And in my half-dozen trips this year, I’ve noticed some improvement: smaller lines, four planes on the runway at LaGuardia instead of the customary two dozen. Two flights actually arrived early, sending several fellow passengers into a mild state of shock. In February, the on-time arrival rate of U.S. carriers rose modestly, to 68.6 percent from 67.3 percent in February 2007.

Of course, every trend can be taken to extremes. And it’s possible that some companies may have become overzealous in their drive to free up gate slots. Last week, American Airlines canceled 3,000 flights, including nearly half of those scheduled for Wednesday, so it could inspect wiring on MD-80 planes. This voluntary effort surely did wonders for reducing aerial logjams and made it possible for thousands of fliers to reach their destinations on time. Alas, it did little for the hundreds of thousands of American Airlines passengers inconvenienced. The airlines may succeed in reducing capacity, but they’re going to have a more difficult time reducing air rage.