Making Flight Plans for 2003

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When it comes to America's troubled airlines, every cloud is diligently searched for its silver lining. And so the FAA has found one for the post-9/11 air travel slowdown: It has given the agency time to launch plans for new runways and better airports. Still, the effect on commercial flying has been devastating. Airlines lost about $7 billion in 2001, even after receiving a federal bailout of $5 billion, and passenger demand is expected to plunge by as much as 12 percent through 2002.

Smoother flying may be ahead, although it will take some time. The FAA announced this week that while air travel is picking up, it will take another year for traffic to climb back to pre-9/11 levels. And airlines won't start posting a profit until well into 2004.

What does that mean for passengers? Most indications say air travel a year from now will be much like it is today, only more so: Security will be tight, lines will be long and there will be fewer planes.


By 2003 the process of federalizing security screeners will be complete, and some airports will have begun bringing in private firms who will operate under government oversight. Still, most experts agree that airline security is nowhere near as tight as it needs to be. "Things will have to be much different for the airlines to gain back trust," says Richard Gritta, professor of air finance and economics at the University of Portland's Pamplin School of Business. Gritta predicts a far more invasive style of security than we're accustomed to, including use of super high-definition x-rays that reveal, um, everything under your clothing, and unapologetic profiling.

Airlines are currently working with the government to establish faster and more efficient ways to get passengers through security checkpoints without compromising safety. Some industry officials want pre-screened frequent flyers to carry ID cards that would allow them to zip through security, despite government fears that terrorists might take advantage of such a system.


As a result of declining demand, U.S. airlines have parked or retired 350 planes, according to the Air Transport Association, the trade group representing major airlines. That means fewer flights to chose from. And the downturn in travel has left smaller airlines increasingly vulnerable to consolidation, further cutting the number of options available to passengers.

So how bad will it get? You'll still be able to get a ticket, but there will be a new emphasis on putting fewer planes in the air, and you may not get the exact time or seat — or even airport, given the trend toward smaller, less congested hubs — that you'd hoped for.


Plane tickets are relatively cheap right now, in part because airlines are desperate to get people on board. Travelers' checkbooks also benefit from the low fuel costs airlines are currently enjoying. All this is likely to change over the next 12 months. Analysts expect to see pre-9/11 prices (for fuel and airline tickets) return before the end of 2002.

Then there are the new taxes, like the $10 per ticket charge put into place last fall to help pay for new security measures. Given its purpose, this particular fee is unlikely to ruffle any feathers, but if it is simply the first of many new hikes, passengers could rebel and refuse to fly, further deflating the market.