Airline flying in the face of cuts

ATLANTA – With flight delays, computer glitches, lost baggage and weather-related problems getting more attention, questions about the effect of cutbacks on airline staff are front and center.

Airlines started the week still struggling with delays and cancellations caused by an ice storm in the Northeast over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend. On Wednesday, JetBlue Airways Corp. lowered its 2007 profit outlook, partly because of a rash of weather-related cancellations.

There’s only so much the airlines can do when it snows or ice freezes the runways, and system malfunctions can happen from time to time. But with the airlines laser-focused on controlling costs and turning profits, customers have a right to expect more for their money, travel watchers say.

“We’ve had a race to the bottom in the airline industry to see who can operate an airline with the least amount of people,” said Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based airline expert. “I don’t know which airline has won, but I know the consumer has lost.”

The number of total employees fell from 672,294 at the end of 2000 to 529,590 at the end of 2005 among U.S. carriers designated as major airlines by the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said it’s unfair to blame airlines for things that are often beyond their control – like weather-related delays. And while he acknowledged major airlines have reduced capacity and cut staff in recent years, he said they haven’t lost sight of the importance of good customer service.

“I think it is a convenient argument for people to make that downsizing has increased delay times,” Castelveter said. “I find that to be unsubstantiated.”

He said that while having fewer available seats doesn’t always provide for a customer to quickly get to his or her destination when a flight is delayed or canceled, “there are many cases where there are seats available.”

Widely publicized gaffes lately have not made things easy for the airlines.

New York-based JetBlue suffered a public relations fiasco after a storm on Valentine’s Day caused widespread operational delays. The airline, which could not resume a normal schedule for days, adopted a customer bill of rights after reports that passengers were stranded for hours on grounded planes.

Earlier this month, Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways Group Inc. was affected by computer glitches that started shutting down hundreds of check-in kiosks that resulted in an unspecified number of flight delays.

JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Eshelman said it’s reasonable for passengers to expect a lot from the airlines.

“We want to hold ourselves to very high standards,” she said. “When there are weather delays, they can know exactly what to expect from us.”

US Airways’ Phil Gee said airlines should be prepared to handle any situation.

“We’re in the customer service business, and the customers expect good customer service every time they fly,” he said.

They also want low fares.

Dawn Van Meeteren said her family wouldn’t want to pay more for a ticket, even if it means fewer delays.

“It’s expensive now as it is,” she said.

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