Airline Passengers Should Get Used to Crowded Flights, Executive Says


The empty middle seat in coach and the easy upgrade to first class have nearly disappeared and business travelers tired of fighting their way through crowded airline aisles better get used to it.

That glum news comes from Robert Coggin, a senior vice president at Delta Airlines.

At a recent travel industry meeting in Atlanta, Coggin explained in some detail how the influx of low cost, no-frills carriers has lured thousands more travelers into the skies, forcing down prices and leaving much of the industry with packed planes and paltry profits.

"At Delta we see this as a permanent change," he told the annual meeting of the Woodside Travel Trust.

For example, before Southwest Airlines entered one particular market, he said 500 people traveled between the cities involved each day; afterward there were 1,800 traveling daily, and the one way fare plunged from $180 to $50.

After Value Jet entered the Atlanta market, he said, Delta in 1994 found itself competing with that low-cost carrier in 16 markets where traffic grew by 85%. Over that year 2.9 million more people flew between the cities involved than in the previous year, he said.

Those kinds of situations, he said, have caused the Federal Aviation Administration to forecast "an ever-increasing level of low-fare competition" with annual growth rates of 5% but overall a 19% decline in yields between this year and 2006. Yield is a measure of revenues related to fares.

"People are flying as never before," he said, noting that Delta lost millions of dollars last year despite high seat occupancy rates.

The cheap prices that are swelling air traffic are drawing large numbers of leisure travelers, he said.

That's why frequent travelers are having a harder time finding planes that aren't crowded. And crowded flights, on top of airline restrictions, make it all the harder to trade in frequent flier mileage for a less crowded business or first class seat.

The business traveler, now accounting for perhaps 60% of the passengers on any given flight, will drop to 40% or 45% over the next few years, Coggin said.

Only companies that are willing to change will survive, he said, noting that Delta has reduced its payroll by 10,000 and is continuing cutbacks.

For the business traveler this may mean noticeable changes.

One of them, he suggested, may be "less focus or no focus at all" on in-flight food service.

"Someone said the easiest thing in the world is to give up airline food," he said.

Helane Becker, an airline analyst for Smith Barney, told the same meeting that "airlines are working very hard at keeping their planes in the air and filling them up."

In January of this year, she added, traffic was up 8%. She also forecast a tripling of traffic between the United States and Canada, following the open skies agreement between the two countries, along with cheaper fares.

So which flights are likely to be the busiest of the busy?

A new survey from the Travel Industry Assn. of America may provide some clues. It shows the top 10 hot spots for leisure travel this spring are Florida, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas, Colorado, New York, Arizona, Washington and Louisiana.

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