Q: The question in On the Spot about Greece's ability to weather its financial crisis prompts this question about the consequences of American Airlines' bankruptcy: Two months ago, I bought a round-trip ticket from L.A. to New York City on American for next month. Now I hear that American will slash thousands of jobs and restructure, so is it likely that hundreds of flights will be canceled and I will be forced to wait at airports for hours?
-D. Tulanian, Los Angeles
A: If you're forced to wait hours at airports, the culprit may be the weather, not American's fiscal problems - at least, not in the near term.
American wants to cut about 13,000 jobs - including as many as 2,300 flight attendants and as many as 400 pilots. But don't assume, as I did, that cutbacks in personnel mean cutbacks in schedule; that's adding two and two and getting five, Mary Frances Fagan, an American representative, told me. If unions will make concessions on work rules, existing workers may be able to fill in the gaps left by laid-off workers, she said. Result: no schedule cutbacks.
Whether that's best for American's workers - and American's customers - is unclear, but flight attendants will work hard to keep business struggles out of the cabin, said Laura Glading, president of the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents the 17,000 flight attendants at American Airlines. "If American has done one thing right in the last 50 years, it's that they have hired incredible people, proud people, who are resilient," she said.
And they must be in these tough times for airlines, as fuel prices creep upward and consumers often choose their airline based on low fares rather than quality of service. When price and service intersect, it's traveler nirvana, but with American, that hasn't always been the case, some say. "American has not provided a stellar experience, so why would anyone pay extra for a ticket?" said Grant Cardone, an author and frequent flier who stars in "Turnaround King," a National Geographic Channel reality show in which he advises businesses on how to make things work. It's not just American, he added. "If I fly coach on some of the majors and you ask for a glass of water, you feel like you asked somebody to take your dog out at 35,000 feet."
Whither, then, American? It seems to have missed the merger mania that allowed Delta to take on Northwest and United to blend with Continental, and there's some thought that the government, worried about whittling down competition, won't be quite as willing to bless another merger.
American's best bet, said James Brock, professor of economics at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio, may be to become smaller, not larger. "They have the potential to be a very sleek, slimmed-down, competitive airline," Brock said. "American can be one of the last, best hopes for competition in the domestic market."
In other words, the new Southwest, which always has had a different model for running an airline. If American gives Southwest a run for its money, the result may be lower ticket prices and a flying experience that's differentiated by customer service.
Putting the comfort of the person who pays ahead of the comfort of the person who's being paid? Now there's an experience every leisure traveler - who doesn't fly first class and doesn't necessarily have elite frequent-flier status - can get behind.