By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 6/24/2008 12:37:12 PM ET 2008-06-24T16:37:12

Don’t you feel just a bit sorry for the airline industry?

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You should.

America’s domestic airlines are in the eye of a perfect financial storm, and when the winds die down, one of the big airlines will probably be gone. With aviation fuel at astronomical rates with no sign of relief in sight, bets are being taken on which will be the first out of business.

In a recent bankruptcy odds article, 5 major airlines were in the top 10 companies most likely to file for Chapter 11 between now and the end of the year.

The odds are as follows:

1. American: 1 in 2
2. United: 1 in 4
3. Northwest: 1 in 5
4. Delta: 1 in 10
5. Continental: 1 in 25

I was surprised not to see US Airways in that group, especially after the announcement that it will now be charging for soft drinks as well, but I am sure they are not too far behind. As a matter of fact, the only airline that can rest easily during this industry crisis is Southwest.

Many people will smirk, “I always hated that airline anyway, they deserve to be out of business.” Yet, there are many reasons why you don’t want a major airline to go bust.

1. Your wallet.
One of the biggest is that the minute one of the major airlines goes under, your ticket price will most probably rise by 20 percent or more. Why? Because with less competition, the survivors can successfully get away with it and most definitely will.

2. Economy jitters
The number of people that it will put in the unemployment line will only add to the country’s financial mess.

3. Human aspect
There are many good people in the airline industry in which their family’s livelihood is invested and nobody should wish hard times on them.

These days when I tell someone that I work in the airline industry, there are two usual reactions that I get: sympathy or anger. It’s usually followed by a long story on how the airlines messed up their last trip. I now try to avoid telling others of my job when asked. Incredibly, people now think more highly of the IRS than of the airlines. Why do people have such a bitter view of the airline industry?

I asked frequent fliers at random why they hated the airlines so much. Here are the top answers:

1. Complete inefficiency.
2. Always late.
3. Ruined my vacation.
4. They are liars and thieves.
5. General employee attitude.
6. Poor management.
7. They are a necessary evil.

But in the back of your mind, don’t you kind of feel sorry for the airlines?

Since the beginning of commercial aviation ticket prices have steadily decreased as compared to the inflation rate, while capacity has dramatically increased.

Oil prices are at unsustainable levels for airline survivability.

Airlines need to charge for as much as they can get away with, to reduce their operating deficits. And the industry still hasn’t fully recovered from 9/11.

The quick answer is no, you don’t feel sorry for them because they haven’t learned from the demise of one-time giants in the field, such as Pan Am, TWA and Eastern. And when one airline exits, surely another will rise and the vicious circle will continue once again.

It’s a crazy industry. Round and round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows.

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “Flying High With A Frank Steward: More Air Travel Tales From the Flight Crew.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.


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