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Capacity cuts threaten to erode comfort, frequent flyer awards

Imagine a world in which all domestic flights are operated by the likes of Southwest and JetBlue and all overseas flights are operated by American, United and their ilk.

Now relax. Because the odds of that scenario materializing are close to zero. But don’t relax too much—we are moving in that direction.

As low-cost carriers increase their share of the domestic market for air travel, the legacy airlines are focusing on growing their international operations and slimming down their domestic presence.

According to recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch, Continental will increase overall seat capacity just two to three percent in 2008, and the number of domestic seats will actually decline. Other full-service carriers are doing the same.

The reasons for the shift aren’t far to seek. The mainline carriers can make higher profits on overseas flights, where there is little or no pricing competition from discount carriers, so they are shifting their flights from domestic to international. It’s a simple matter of following the money.

For the traveling public, the trend has some real potential downsides. With domestic flights currently running 80 percent full, sometimes more, in-flight comfort is already an oxymoron. Plus, because planes are packed with paying customers, seats for frequent flyers have never been harder to come by. If demand for domestic travel remains stable, or increases, the planned cutbacks in available seats will further exacerbate both problems.

Which leaves travelers in the somewhat ironic position of hoping for a falloff in travel demand in order to halt the continuing deterioration of the travel experience. Recession, anyone?

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