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Airline downsizing means more hassles, fewer choices for travelers

As noted in an [% 15989 | | earlier AskEd & AnswerEd %], most of the U.S. legacy lines are downsizing in an effort to cut costs. Depending on circumstances, the impact of this downsizing on individual travelers could range from none to huge.

A reader recently noted a problem due to Delta’s downsizing. “Delta has always been my best bet for early morning flying from Tulsa to the West Coast, arriving by 9:00 A.M. (via a Salt Lake City connection) in most major cities. I’ve been trying to book travel next April and noticed that Delta will no longer have that early morning flight from Tulsa to Salt Lake City. It was always full, so I don’t know why Delta would discontinue it. Is there a chance that another carrier will pick up Delta’s early morning route to the West Coast? Are these routes ‘sold’ to other airlines?”

To answer the easiest part of that question first, deregulation ended the sale of routes between domestic airlines. Any U.S. airline can fly anywhere it wants, so route authority no longer has a monetary value to either buyer or seller. What does still have value is access to landing and takeoff “slots” at a few busy airports, but that applies to neither Salt Lake City nor any West Coast city.

Downsizing to cut costs

Whether bankrupt or not, the giant “legacy” airlines—American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways—are cutting back on the size of their domestic operations. The driving reason is to cut costs, which means cutting out as many unprofitable services as possible. In some cases, low-cost lines are ready and able to offset any cutbacks by the legacy lines, but not in others. Here’s my take on likely developments.

Smaller planes: The most benign form of downsizing is replacing mainline airplanes such as 737s, A320s, and MD80s with smaller regional jets (RJs). This sort of replacement doesn’t cut down on the number of flights at all; it just results in use of smaller planes. That saves money because (1) the smaller planes use less fuel for a given flight and (2) RJ pilots and other aircrew are usually paid far less than mainline crews. While most of us find those RJs to be cramped and uncomfortable, at least they keep up the schedules. You’ll be lucky if that’s all that happens on the routes you fly.

Fewer flights: In addition to switching some flights to smaller planes, several of the legacy lines have sharply reduced the total number of flights at some of their hubs. You can expect:

  • Fewer flights on busy routes where airlines figure their remaining flights can take care of the traffic (at higher load factors). Routes linking hubs with regional “spoke” cities will be hardest hit.
  • Total cancellation of routes that don’t produce enough of a profit.

American’s recent announcements provide perfect examples of both approaches. American temporarily cancelled some flights from Chicago and Dallas (Ft Worth) to cities where it still has lots of other flights to satisfy the demand; it cancelled its entire nonstop schedule from Chicago to Nagoya, Japan, presumably because of weak traffic.

The really busy routes, such as Los Angeles-New York, are not likely to be affected. To the extent that the legacy lines cut back on flights, low-fare lines such as JetBlue and Song will almost certainly make up any deficiency. Low-fare lines are also likely to invade any legacy line’s hub that looks vulnerable, at least on the busiest routes to/from that hub. And the very light routes, such as from my home airport in Medford, Oregon, to San Francisco, have already been downsized.

Dealing with downsizing

There’s nothing particularly complicated about how to cope with legacy-line downsizing; just use your common sense.

Long-term planning: Obviously, if Delta cancels your preferred flight from Tulsa to Salt Lake City for connections to the West Coast—and doesn’t replace it with an acceptable schedule alternative—you have to shift your business to another airline, through another hub. Check American via Dallas (Ft Worth), Continental via Houston, Frontier via Denver, and such. Wherever else you travel, you can check the same sorts of options. Pick the “least worst” alternatives, and, if necessary, adjust your travel pattern accordingly.

If you’re already ticketed: If you already have a ticket on a cancelled flight or connection, you obviously have to adjust. Chances are, your original airline will automatically rebook you on what it considers an appropriate substitute itinerary. If it’s reasonable, take it.

But if the new flight is unreasonable—or if you can find a better option on another line—you should ask for a refund. When you do, the airline will almost certainly try to fob you off with a voucher rather than cash. If you’re likely to fly that line again in the future, that’s probably OK, provided the voucher is valid long enough for your needs and incorporates no additional restrictions. But make sure you don’t get a voucher good only in some very limited fare classification.

If you aren’t sure when you’re likely to fly your original line again—or you need the cash value of your ticket—ask for a cash refund. As I read the tariffs, you’re due a refund if an airline switches the date of your travel, the schedule times, or the origin or destination airport(s) enough to make the trip unattractive. You are not entitled to a refund, however, if an airline just switches planes or your seat assignment, even if it assigns you a middle seat in a plane you hate.

These days, regardless of your right to a refund, airline employees are probably under orders to resist cutting checks if at all possible. If an airline is not bankrupt, you can certainly threaten small claims court. However, if you buy a ticket from a bankrupt airline (after it filed), my lawyer friends tell me you’d be just another unsecured creditor, so a lawsuit threat would be hollow. You might have better luck with a chargeback (you did buy that ticket with a charge card, didn’t you?), but the big banks are wary of their exposure to airline bankruptcies and are apt to be pretty hard-nosed about chargebacks, too. Bankruptcy or not, however, stick to your guns about a cash refund if that’s what you really want.

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