After airline executives pleaded for more federal relief last week,
travel agency organizations stepped up to urge Congress not to give
in to the demands. ASTA’s statement even said that, unless the
airlines change the way they do business, why “should we continue
to sink taxpayer dollars into a failing system?”
The ASTA comments shot for the moon: If the government agrees to
further help the struggling industry, the airlines should shut down
Orbitz, withdraw proposals for domestic code-sharing agreements
with major carriers, supply lawmakers with plans for reforming
pricing and service to achieve profitability under foreseeable
marketplace conditions, make all airfares available for sale
through all distribution channels and eliminate what it described
as punitive nonrefundable ticket restrictions.
ARTA, meanwhile, said it would submit written testimony opposing
any further aid to the House Aviation Subcommittee, which heard
testimony from industry executives Sept. 24.
“It’s time to put the marketplace not Congress in charge of the
airlines,” said John Hawks, the organization’s president.
In an Associated Press report, Rep. John Mica, R.-Fla., the
subcommittee chairman, said the airlines won’t get a government
bailout but could expect some assistance with the cost of
additional security requirements imposed after last year’s
“They need our help,” he said.
No matter how Congress handles their pleas, the major airlines
definitely are struggling and everyone knows it.
“They’re in trouble, and they don’t know how to get out of it,”
said Morten Beyer, chairman of Morten Beyer & Agnew, an
aviation consultancy based in Arlington, Va.
Donald J. Carty, American Airlines chairman and CEO, told the
House subcommittee: “Without relief, our efforts to control our own
costs will be futile.”
The average U.S. carrier “is 90% leveraged ... our balance
sheets and credit ratings are deteriorating rapidly,” Carty told
In 2001, major airlines lost some $7.7 billion in the United
States. This year, Wall Street pegs those losses at $5.7 billion to
But, unlike the $15 billion in federal support that followed
Sept. 11, this time the carriers are seeking a more subtle form of
bailout. They want taxpayers to pay for terrorism liability
insurance for up to one year and to reimburse them for the cost of
mandated security changes, such as the strengthening of cockpit
Airlines also want an end to monthly security fees paid to the
Department of Transportation and elimination of the $10 security
fee that passengers now have to pay on each roundtrip.
Airlines are also worried about sharp increases in jet fuel
prices and a further falloff in ridership if the United States
invades Iraq. “Such an event really would put a financial burden on
this industry,” American’s Carty said. “That would inevitably sink
Airlines want a significant cut in federal fuel taxes to help
offset rising fuel prices.
“We are not asking for special treatment,” said Leo F. Mullin,
Delta Air Lines chairman and CEO.
But critics argue that is precisely what airlines are
“It’s time for the marketplace to punish and reward management
and labor decisions in the airline industry,” the president of the
Business Travel Coalition, Kevin Mitchell, said in a prepared
In the immediate wake of last year’s terrorist attacks, the
coalition voiced support for the federal bailout. But Mitchell
believes the burden now lies with the airlines to buoy their own
He indicated they can start by treating customers better.
Cramped airplanes, diminished service and implementation of
use-it-or-lose-it strictures for nonrefundable tickets “have
backfired,” he said.
“There’s a backlash from customers whose loyalty was taken for
granted,” Mitchell said.
Gerald Greenberg, president of Baldwin Travel Bureau in Los
“[Airlines] are crying the blues, but I think they created a lot
of their own problems,” Greenberg said.
Even if Congress approves the measures that carriers want,
industry observer Beyer maintained that it may not be enough.
“What they’re proposing is no more than a Band-Aid,” said Beyer,
adding that if they get what they want from legislators, carriers
“will just dig their hole deeper.”
Beyer believes governmental re-regulation is needed to maintain
the viability of the U.S. airline industry. Since 1979, airlines
have been free to set their own routes and fares, unencumbered by
the oversight of the now defunct Civil Aeronautics Board.
But Beyer conceded that re-regulation “isn’t going to happen.”
In the absence of a move to re-regulate, he said, airlines must
exercise “an extraordinary amount of self-discipline to restructure
their whole route systems.”
Right now, the major carriers provide jet service in some 140
U.S. cities “and virtually every one of the airlines operates in at
least 100 of these cities,” Beyer said. Without eliminating some of
that overlap, he said, he doesn’t see carriers returning to