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June 15, 2008

"Flying This Summer?"

My last column (“Doomsday: What Happens When Gas Hits $10 a Gallon”) seems to have struck a chord. Many of you said I was unduly pessimistic, while a few said “right on… we’re screwed”.

Little did I know that many of my worst fears were already coming true. Take air travel, for example.

I remember the good old days of flying when passengers would get dressed up for the adventure. Flights were roomy and the service was extravagant… not pretzels and soda, but filet and champagne. Getting there really was half the fun! Going “on the road” was almost enjoyable.

But no more. Now, even getting to the airport can be a challenge.

Most major cities in the civilized world have rail service to their airports, but not New York. That AirTrain to JFK is fun, if you can reach its northern terminus by subway or LIRR. But for those of us in Connecticut, the price of car service to Newark or JFK can be higher than the airfare to our destination… though not for long.

And when you arrive at the terminal, the fun really begins. Long lines to check bags (soon to be even longer!) and longer lines to go through security. And does anybody really think the TSA is keeping us safe? Not me!

First, no liquids. Now, three ounces or less. Then, no lighters. Now lighters are allowed again. And don’t you love the TSA agents barking at you as you strip down, almost to your skivvies, just to clear the metal detectors?

True, the TSA is experimenting with a Zen-like security area at BWI airport, complete with mood lighting and soft-music. I doubt that will help as you still have to take off your belt and shoes.

Then, there’s the airlines’ new policy of charging for even the first checked bag. That will doubtless mean more hassles on boarding as the cheapskates demand space for their two carry-on’s. And that will probably mean departure delays as airlines mismanage the turn-around times for in-coming aircraft.

Let’s face facts: Most airlines won’t survive the energy crunch. We’ve already lost Aloha, ATA, Skybus, Silverjet Maxjet and Eos, to name a few. Frontier has filed chapter eleven and US Air, American, United and Continental are rumored to be in trouble.

The merger of Delta and Northwest will just create one terrible airline out of two bad ones.

Most carriers still flying are already cutting back on capacity, grounding less fuel-efficient aircraft and laying off staff. That will mean fewer flights, each more crowded and expensive

So look for fewer scheduling options, more over-booking and a bidding war at the departure gate as airlines bid for who’s willing to take a later flight… if there’s room.

The good news is that fewer flights might mean less delays in air traffic control, but it still seems that a drop of rain in the NYC area translates into departure delays nationwide.

Then there are the fares. The big carriers have already gone through six rounds of fuel surcharge increases this year, but the best (or worst) is yet to come. As the carriers are facing billions in losses from soaring fuel costs, there’s every reason to expect massive fare hikes in the months ahead.

And so it should be. Airlines shouldn’t be expected to fly at a loss. Mobility of all sorts should come at a cost. And at some point the alternatives to flying -- Amtrak, the bus or even teleconferencing -- will find their market.

So next business trip, ask yourself: Is this trip really necessary, affordable… or tolerable?

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