Straighten up and Fly Right
The U.S. airline industry is broke. Here is why.
Imagine a jet in a tailspin: The earth rushes towards you, the altimeter spins wildly, and the tension threatens to escalate into panic. Good pilots don't panic. Escaping a death spiral isn't about genius or improvisation or luck. It's about knowing what to do and doing it. The five-step protocol that pilots learn begins with "chopping the power” and ends with pushing the throttle to provide a surge that levels the plane. The imperiled aircraft flashes skyward like a silver arrow, ready to fly another day. Passengers heave a sigh of relief – and reach for the drinks cart.
Right now the U.S. airline industry is in an economic tailspin. The industry's debt total has jumped from $55 billion to $90 billion since 1999. Sure, low-cost carriers like Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran are continuing to thrive. But major carriers, whose origins date back to the fat and happy era before deregulation in 1978, are reeling. Last year American, Delta, United, Continental, Northwest, and US Airways lost a combined $10 billion on $70 billion in revenues, after posting a $6.8 billion loss in 2001. Since 1998 the market capitalization of those majors has fallen from $4 billion to less than $2 billion at the end of 2002; United and US Airways have recently gone bankrupt.
So, yes, there is a lot of turbulence out there. But stay calm. The skies will not be empty. For one thing, bankrupt airlines can and will still fly, as America West and Continental are showing at the moment. "If not for bankruptcy, we wouldn't be flying today,” says Continental CEO Gordon Bethune. "It could be a good thing for United and US Airways.” For another, the carriers' problems don't have to be fatal. Quick, drastic action can work – as long as it is the right drastic action. Whether or not airlines can identify and implement these solutions, however, remains unclear.
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