Airline Profits Soar as Fuel Prices Drop, but Fliers Face Bumpy Ride

by Ben Popken /  / Updated 

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Don't expect your flying experience to be pleasant, or cheap this summer.

At a meeting of top airline executives this week in Miami, the word on every airline executive's lips was "discipline."

Translation: few seats, pricey tickets, bigger profits.

Despite plummeting fuel costs, the airlines' single biggest cost, few of those savings are getting passed along to passengers.

Instead, record profits. The International Air Transport Association increased its profit outlook for the industry to $29.3 billion, a new high, up nearly 80 percent from last year.

Airline profits are projected to increase 80 percent this year

Meanwhile, passengers only saw a $.66 reduction in average airfares last quarter. And they’ll soon have more fellow passengers to rub elbows with in the security line and bump into in the aisles.

Airline for America, an industry trade group, predicts 2.4 million passengers per day will fly on US airlines from June 1-Aug 31, up from 2.29 million during the same time last year. To accommodate the 4.5 percent increase in passengers, airlines say they're increasing the number of seats by 4.6 percent.

In other words, the flying experience will remain roughly the same. Cramped, crowded, and with no price breaks in sight.

At the same time, airlines are getting better at squeezing in more passengers, and more creative.

Boeing is expected to unveil a design this month that would add 2-14 more seats by reducing the size of lavatories. The plan is to make lavatories smaller on the outside while increasing passenger space inside.

"Basically, we are reducing the space allotted to pipes, wiring and support brackets and increasing the space available to passengers," said Daniel Mosely, a Boeing spokesman. "It’s a smarter design."

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines is experimenting with pre-loading passenger carry-ons in a program called "Early Valet." Agents will cruise the gate area and ask waiting passengers if they'd like to participate. Then the bags will get tagged and pre-loaded in the overhead. Besides the convenience, it also helps the airlines shave off more time.

But that carry-on could be getting downsized too. The International Air Transport Association put out a recommendation this week that carry-on bag limits be reduced to 21.5 inches x 13.5 x 7.5. The guidelines are voluntary and no American airline has signed up for them. If adopted, passengers could lose 20-40 percent of bag space.

And it seems every few months another proposal is floated to jam in more travelers into already crowded cabins. In April, Airbus showed off a mock design for budget economy class with 11 seats per row, up from 10.

The changes aren't doing much to improve customer sentiment.

As of March, customer complaints were up 55.1 percent from a year ago, according to Department of Transportation data. The next month they dropped to only a 12 percent increase.

One of those unhappy customers is Tyler Cook, who nearly missed walking his 57-year-old mom down the aisle today, thanks to a series of bungles by American Airlines, he said. Now he'll barely get to the wedding on time.

"At every turn, everything that could go wrong, went wrong," said the 29-year-old film editor from Los Angeles.

Two of his flights were delayed and he missed a connection in Chicago. Then he was missing a bag when he landed in Detroit. It had the dress and accessories his wife was going to wear to the wedding. Trying to get his problem fixed, he said he found the airline workers to be “rude” and “bureaucratic.”

"At this point, I'm pretty set on just never flying with American again," he said. After sending a few angry tweets to the airline, American offered to refund some of his expenses for the missed bag.

"We certainly apologize to Mr. Cook for the inconvenience," said American Airlines spokesman Leslie Scott. As of Friday night, Scott said Cook's bag had arrived in Detroit and American Airlines was "expediting delivery" to him in Ohio.

That's still too late to make it to the wedding, though.

Despite the blowback, airlines believe they're offering summer travelers a good deal.

"Airfare remains one of the best consumer bargains out there given its superior speed and price versus other modes of travel," said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry trade organization.

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