Airlines now must rebuild demand for air travel

Associated Press

The airline industry was in awful shape long before airborne terrorist attacks sent shivers through the traveling public. Now, the synchronous decline of business travel spending and the U.S. economy are merely the backdrop to what many expect will be a long period of suffering for carriers — their solvency dependent upon huge layoffs and a multibillion-dollar bailout.

"We’re so far away from break-even that it’s not even worth calculating," said David Swierenga, chief economist at the Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C.

By the end of the week, with 20 percent fewer flights and tighter airport security visible nationwide, more than 60 percent of the seats on domestic flights remained empty.

As travelers retrenched, so did the airlines. More than 80,000 U.S. airline employees have been laid off, and executives warned that payrolls could be pared even further.

"This is a very painful decision," Richard Anderson, chief executive of Northwest Airlines said Friday in announcing 10,000 job cuts.

The only major carrier that had not officially announced layoffs by Friday was Delta, and its employees were warned to expect them soon.

Some industry watchers believe airline executives may be overstating attack-related losses and that the government is underestimating the carriers’ long-term woes.

"Implausible but not impossible" is how UBS Warburg analyst Sam Buttrick described the industry’s forecasts of $5 billion to $6 billion in after-tax losses by the end of the year directly related to the attacks. Buttrick, a widely respected analyst, said the attack-related losses for 2001 were probably closer to $2.1 billion to $3 billion.

Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, said the government needed to make a clearer distinction between the dire short-term situation, caused by events beyond the industry’s control, and pre-existing inefficiencies that made layoffs and bankruptcies likely prior to the attacks.

"All the bailouts in the world are not going to change the economics of the industry, which is that demand went down," he said.

With travel agents, aircraft manufacturers and the entire tourism industry reeling from the aftershocks of four fateful hijackings on Sept. 11, there is ample evidence that images of the destroyed World Trade Center and damaged Pentagon caused widespread fear among travelers.

Mary Peters of Friendly Travel in Alexandria, Va., said roughly 70 percent of flights planned through November were canceled, meaning lost commissions and booking fees. Peters canceled $140,000 worth of airline tickets in one day.

Now, aside from wondering which carrier is most likely to file for bankruptcy, the question on most industry minds is what it will take to lure travelers to the skies.

"I would like to see an immediate and highly visible show of armed guards on airplanes," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which lobbies the industry on behalf of large corporations. "You just gotta do it. Otherwise, the flying public’s not coming back anytime soon."

In the meantime, the president of the American Society of Travel Agents, Richard Copland, suggested patriotic Americans consider flying as a way to support the anemic economy.

"They used to say buy war bonds," he said. "Now the saying should be get on an airplane."

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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