For Air Travelers, Small Affronts Start to Add Up

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As if air travel could get any worse.

The airlines have already taken away the free meals and the pillows. They have been charging for checked bags and extra legroom and raising fares whenever they can get away with it. They have cut back capacity so steeply that planes are nearly always filled to the brim.

Now, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday — traditionally the busiest time of the year — the Transportation Security Administration has imposed tough new security measures.

And that may have been the last straw for many travelers.

Judy Dugan, the research director at Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group, argues that the anger that has welled up against the new security procedures is an expression of travelers’ overall attitude toward air travel.

“Passengers are angry and frustrated about most of the flying experience — the whole ‘shut up and sit down’ experience of flying,” Ms. Dugan said. “But unless they’re professional travelers, they can’t pin the frustration on individual airlines. It’s easy, though, to focus on the T.S.A., which is a big and omnipresent part of every flight for everyone.”

And don’t expect any change for the better anytime soon. While many travelers may complain about their travel experience, the industry for the first time in years has found a way back to profitability by holding the line on the number of flights they offer.

United States airlines scheduled 526,000 flights in September, according to the Air Consumer Travel Report, down from more than 600,000 in September 2007. And each flight is now fuller. Load factors, which measure how many seats are filled by paying customers, have risen above 80 percent on average at most airlines and will probably be 90 percent or more over the holidays. Only a few years ago, airlines were achieving load factors of 70 percent.

Just between Chicago O’Hare International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York, American Airlines and United Airlines scheduled 1,400 fewer flights in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period three years ago, a drop of 17 percent.

Fees are also piling up. Bag fees, for instance, brought in $1.7 billion in extra revenue in the first half of the year. In many cases, passengers are paying for services that were once free. Changing a ticket on US Airways, for instance, now costs $150 to $250; sending an unaccompanied minor on a Delta Air Lines flight, $100. Pet charge on Southwest, $75; an alcoholic drink on United, as much as $9.

“Air travel used to be glamorous and exciting — and now, it’s just a pain,” said Mary C. Gilly, a professor of marketing at the University of California, Irvine. “Airlines have become very cost-oriented as opposed to service-oriented. They are catering to their investors, not their customers.”

More problems may be on the horizon, some experts say. New federal rules have pretty much abolished instances of planes sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours. But the rule, which went into effect in May, may have had the unintended effect of forcing more flights to be canceled, some airline experts say.

Airlines said they have a strong incentive to comply with the tarmac rule given that the potential fines of $27,500 per passenger could end up costing around $3 million per delayed flight. But as a result, airlines have been canceling flights that they expect may face a long delay. When a plane returns to the gate to avoid the three-hour penalty, there is also an extra chance it will get canceled.

From May to September, the last month for which data is publicly available, only 12 flights remained on the tarmac more than three hours. That compares with 535 in the same period last year. But more flights were canceled in the same period, even as airlines reduced their overall capacity. Even so, airline experts say it is too early to determine whether the rule has benefited customers.

“We haven’t gone through a big winter yet,” said Brett Snyder, the author of the Cranky Flyer blog and the president of Cranky Concierge, an air travel assistance Web site. “We need those long snowstorms that mess things up to know the impact of the rule. I think we need to wait.”

With fewer flights, though, travelers could end up waiting for hours at the airport, or even spend the night there, without any compensation for the inconvenience if bad weather delays operations.

Weather, in fact, more than security checkpoint delays, may turn into the bigger headache of the holiday period.

Airlines certainly anticipate full flights for the next week. The Air Transportation Association predicted that the number of passengers over this Thanksgiving holiday — which is defined as a 12-day period that began on Nov. 19 and ends on Tuesday — will rise 3.5 percent from last year, to 24 million people.

To help ease travel delays, the Federal Aviation Administration, as it has done in previous years, said it would clear the way for some commercial planes to fly in airspace normally reserved for the military. Airlines have also taken steps to meet the crowds. At many airports, extra airline employees will be on hand to help direct passengers to their gates, or help them move to the head of security lines if they are running late.

Southwest, the largest domestic carrier, said it would strive to accommodate every passenger, especially Wednesday and Sunday, traditionally among the busiest days, adding extra flights if needed.

“We do everything we can do to make sure you can get to your destination,” said Greg Wells, the vice president of operations for Southwest Airlines.

Continental and United, which recently merged, have several measures in place to handle the influx of holiday travelers, according to Christen David, a spokeswoman for both airlines. The carriers have brought in additional customer service agents, gate agents and bag handlers. They are also asking managers and clerical personnel to work on the front lines on the day before Thanksgiving.

“It’s all hands on deck,” she said.

Upset with the security measures, Rachelle Desrochers, a health insurance analyst who works in Providence, R.I., said she rarely flew these days, preferring to drive or take the train instead. “I may never get to the West Coast again,” she said, half-jokingly.

Other travelers appeared more stoic about the current state of the airline business.

“We want cheap airline tickets but we don’t want to accept the fact that airlines are turning into Greyhound buses,” said Christopher F. Childres, a managing partner at Edgewater Capital Partners, a private equity firm. “But if we pay Greyhound bus prices, we should expect Greyhound bus service.”

He said that his worst experiences were generally not with the airlines but with other passengers, “whether it is a person walking through security with all the jewelry they own, or the person that doesn’t buy two seats but lifts the armrest and takes up half your seat.”

But, he added, “If you’re paying $200 to fly 800 miles in two hours, there has to be an economic reason it’s that cheap. You can’t have a customer experience for $200.”

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