Feb. 12, 2001: Take Heart, O Weary Traveler…

There will soon be one less airline to kick you around. American Airlines has announced plans to take over TWA. Just what we need in the airline industry – less competition!

The news gets even better. Donald Carty, American Airlines CEO, says less competition will actually benefit the flying public. With two national airlines – American and United – you will be able to go anywhere in the country and the two mega carriers will fall all over themselves to convince you to fly with them. Yeah, right. Maybe I missed this part but I don’t remember him saying anything about less competition making flights more affordable, seats more comfortable, food more edible or personnel more customer-friendly.

If we follow his logic, then Continental should take over Northwest (who doesn’t fly when it snows.) They would then merge with Delta (who doesn’t fly when its pilots are mad, which is most of the time), who would merge with United or American, who would then take over each other. With that accomplished, the whole crowd would then merge with AOL/Time Warner/ Turner/Looney Tunes. Now you are talking some serious customer benefit!

Don’t scoff at Carty’s claims too quickly. He might be right. Maybe things will get better if one of the airlines disappears. They can’t get much worse. Example: This past Christmas, a friend’s son who lives in Washington, came to Atlanta for the holidays. He had only a short time to visit, so rather than risk delays or cancellations, he took the train!

One of the main benefits of semi-retirement is that I don’t have to fly much anymore. For nine years, I had a staff in Washington and a lot of business in New York and flew almost weekly. Looking back on that experience today, I don’t know how I survived. I read somewhere that animals have some kind of chemical in their body that renders them numb before they are killed by other animals. That way, they don’t experience the pain. I am convinced that airline travelers have that same chemical. I could always tell the rookie flyers. They would let their frustrations boil over when something didn’t go right and rip into flight attendants, gate agents or skycaps. Kind of like a chihuahua barking at a water buffalo. After a few more flights, you would see these same people with eyes glazed and heads down, slowly shuffling through the airport. Clearly, the chemical had kicked in and they no longer felt the pain. The airlines had claimed another victim.

Back in the late 70’s, I had a tour of duty with AT&T in Washington when deregulation was all the rage with Congress. The Bell System knew that trucks and airlines would be deregulated first and then would come telecommunications. One of my responsibilities was to monitor the progress of airline deregulation. As I sat and listened to the bureaucrats and economists and think tank pointy-heads extol the virtues of competition in the airline industry, I vividly recall Senator Fritz Hollings, of South Carolina, predicting that as soon as they were cut free of regulation, airlines would cease serving the small markets and chaos would ensue. He was more right than wrong with his prediction.

Airline deregulation has more people flying – although I believe that would have happened with or without deregulation – but airlines have been unwilling or unable to accommodate the increased traffic and have lost the loyalty of the public as a result. Look no further than our own back yard and see what has happened to Delta Airlines. Delta squeezes more people into smaller seats, cuts amenities — but not prices – and tries to live off its reputation from the days when there was a genuine love affair between the airline and its customers. Despite the best efforts of a lot of good people on the front lines, today’s Delta ranks in popularity somewhere between Tammy Faye Bakker and the Internal Revenue Service.

If you have to travel, you have little choice but to fly. You endure the delays, the cancellations, the cramped space, the stressed employees and all the other unpleasantness of air travel or you stay home. Take it or leave it.

But with the American Airlines takeover, look for things to improve dramatically in the airline industry. The planes will be roomier. The personnel enthusiastic and you will arrive at your destination on time, every time.

If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.