How the Airlines Put the Squeeze on Passengers

As airlines become more streamlined and profitable, flyers face even unfriendlier skies

Jeffrey Milstein

Ninety-two flights sat on the tarmac at a U.S. airport for more than three hours.

If you want some insight into why the Department of Justice put a gate hold on the merger between American Airlines and US Airways, here's a number to ponder: 13 million seats—gone. That's how many airplane seats have disappeared over the past year—seats removed from the system by the airlines as they reduce capacity.

This means life in the skies will not be improving anytime soon: no empty seats, no room overhead, and stressed-out staff. And as there is little or no capacity growth in the forecast, the future of flying promises more cramp for more cash.

That reality became painfully obvious in a two-day, three-airline lap around the country in late August. Fares are rising because the airlines have stopped chasing market share. In some cases, they're making fewer trips with larger jets. Or by just the opposite: flying smaller jets that are cheaper to operate. At the same time, the industry continues to harvest what it calls ancillary revenue (and what passengers call fees—along with a few other words) for everything from checked baggage to so-called premium economy seats, to priority boarding and trip insurance, to movies, to meals and drinks.

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