Losers In Airline Deals: Passengers

Suddenly I'm thrilled that my frequent-flier miles are on United's aging and somewhat rickety fleet, even if it doesn't mean much in the way of nonstops from San Diego to the New York area.

At least it's not merging with anybody. At least not yet.

That's pretty much what I was thinking this morning when I saw that U.S. Airways Group Inc. was bidding for bankrupt Delta Air Lines Inc. While such a deal might be wonderful for the airline industry, it's terrible news for those of us who frequent these flying buses.

The idea behind mergers, like the one proposed Wednesday, is to further reduce capacity and costs. That's another way of saying that there will be no empty middle seats.

I like to fly and understand the industry's need to do whatever it takes to survive. It wasn't an easy business to be a part of under regulation. As foes of deregulation in the late 1970s predicted, it wouldn't be any easier as airlines battled one another in a free market.

They were right — and the mergers that followed have proved it.

One of the first mergers in the deregulated skies, which I covered in my days as a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was St. Paul-based North Central's acquisition in 1979 of Atlanta-based Southern Airways. The new company was called Republic Airlines. Talk about culture shock! A year later Republic went on to acquire Hughes Airwest. Six years later Northwest, also of St. Paul, acquired Republic. A few years later Northwest was acquired in a botched leveraged buyout. Northwest, long-ago dubbed "Northworst" by captive passengers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, appears to have been struggling ever since.

Now we have U.S. Airways, fresh from a year-ago merger with America West, trying to take over yet another struggling airline before its own house is in order.

One of the biggest issues is labor. Several weeks ago the Airline Pilots Association issued a press release demanding that U.S. Airways CEO Doug Parker "end his obstructive negotiating tactics in his attempt to sidestep the integration of the two airlines." One pilot was recently quoted in the airline's home paper, the Arizona Republic, as saying, "If they are not careful, they're going to mess up a good thing. I think we're getting close to the end of the honeymoon period."

According to the story, the situation isn't much better for passengers. "The biggest snafu occurred in the spring," the story said, "when the airlines merged their frequent-flier programs and [Web sites]. Passengers found glitches galore, like being unable to book a flight or look up account information."

And I won't even bore you with the newspaper reporting on the fiasco that's come of merging the two airlines' computer reservations systems — something that won't be fixed until March at the earliest. "It's a big problem," Parker, the chief executive, was quoted as saying. "I'd be upset, too."

And he wants to buy Delta? Good thing for its passengers Delta is fighting back. But, sadly, this is likely just Round 1.

Suddenly that tired old United fleet is looking mighty good.

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