Air Travel Gets a New Model

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Passengers wait to check in at the US Airways counter in Miami

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Open Your Wallet
After being pummeled by the discounters, the major carriers might be expected to make a better effort to compete on price. And at least initially — as hurting airlines do anything to lure passengers on board and bankrupt carriers have more flexibility to trim costs — that may be the case. But in the long run, as the major carriers further cut capacity and eventually consolidate, it's likely that most domestic fares — which declined on average almost 10% in June and are now near 15-year lows — will start to inch their way back up. One reason is that in order to increase the appeal of their business fares, airlines have to make up some of that lost revenue on the low end. At the very least, the majors may learn from the discounters and simplify their complex fare structures.

Passengers stranded on less popular routes not served by discounters will probably have their wallets hit especially hard. But as low-cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue go after one another, certain direct fares should fall. Just last month JetBlue announced service from Long Beach to Oakland, Calif., starting at $19 each way, a price that Southwest matched in 48 hours.

Keep Saving Those Miles
One bright spot may be passengers with thousands of frequent-flyer miles. Carriers like United and US Airways or the relatively healthier trio of Continental, Delta and Northwest are trying to strike code-sharing agreements, which theoretically give flyers a wider choice of airlines on which to redeem their miles. But as carriers slash the number of flights and look to maximize every penny, there will be fewer seats available. Some airlines may even choose to award the number of miles based on the ticket price paid. One thing there will definitely be fewer of is first-and business-class seats. First class, which is filled mostly with upgrades, is on its way out, as evidenced by American's plans to cut it on flights to Hawaii and some European cities, including Madrid, Rome and Zurich.

Pack a Lunch
Now that the airlines are trimming their schedules and moving to smaller fleets, odds are that you're going to have even less legroom than before. Many observers think the prolonged slump could force American, its denials notwithstanding, to reconfigure its coach seats, the roomiest in the industry after a two-year, multimillion-dollar redesign.

When it comes to the food, let's just say you might want to fill up before boarding or carry on a picnic. As the economic pressures get fiercer, the quality of the food will get worse and more meals will be cold. Even getting a reservation agent on the phone could get tougher; you can read more of that book while you're on hold.

Don't Start in Fargo
An air traveler's experience is going to depend more than ever on where the trip starts. The smaller cities that were the biggest beneficiaries of the hub system could well be among the principal losers in any industry overhaul. Cutbacks could be facing cities such as Albany, N.Y.; Fargo, N.D.; and Fresno, Calif. US Airways has said it will drop flights to Saginaw, Mich. Smaller, regional jets may help plug some of the gaps, but the economics of such planes require more business passengers and fewer tourists.

People who live near secondary airports around major metropolitan areas may be in luck, however. Discounters are increasingly breathing new life into less congested, long-underused airports, from Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn., to Long Beach and Oakland; JetBlue's successful move into Long Beach caused American to suddenly make its own big push for the onetime aviation backwater.

Amid all the upheaval, one thing seems certain: the airlines will probably leave passengers more confused and frustrated than they are today. "You get what you pay for. Southwest isn't a business airline. American is. But they're in danger of losing that distinction," says Chad Robertson, 25, a district manager for DaimlerChrysler who commutes once a week on American between Dallas and Texas outposts like Amarillo, Lubbock and Odessa. "The airlines may be hurting, but so are we."

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