Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Grounded: Why America's Airlines Are the World's Worst; British Travellers Beware: The US Airline Industry Is in a Tailspin, and Passenger Service and Staff Morale Are Hitting Rock-Bottom

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Grounded: Why America's Airlines Are the World's Worst; British Travellers Beware: The US Airline Industry Is in a Tailspin, and Passenger Service and Staff Morale Are Hitting Rock-Bottom

Article excerpt

Yes, I've flown on Ryanair, easyJet, Flybe and so on, and I know they can be pretty ropy. I also know British Airways loses an awful lot of bags (more than any other major European airline, I'm told). Heathrow can certainly be a disgrace.

But if anybody thinks flying to and from British airports is uniquely awful, I have news for them. In America, which boasts six of the world's biggest airlines, flying even on short-haul flights is beginning to get much, much worse--and the outlook is bleaker still. This year, airlines around the world are expected to make $3.8bn profit, with European firms accounting for $2.4bn of that and Asian-Pacific ones for most of the rest. The US airlines are forecast to lose $600m, and I expect the losses to end up being much more.

Figures just published by the Airline Quality Rating, the authoritative annual survey that examines the performance of 18 airlines using government statistics, found that last year more passengers were bumped from flights, more bags were lost and more flights arrived late than in the previous year. No less than a quarter of all US airline flights are late. Two of the Big Six--Delta and Northwest--are currently bankrupt (under America's Chapter 11 regulations, which allow companies to declare bankruptcy but remain operating while, in theory, they get their act together)--and three of the remaining four have slipped in and out of bankruptcy in recent years.

"We're going to see more delays and those delays translate to cancellations, mishandled bags and unhappy passengers. It's not a pretty picture," says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

Why? The 11 September 2001 atrocities were certainly a big setback for all US airlines--but the Bush administration handed out huge taxpayer bailouts to them, and problems arising from 9/11 largely dissipated after 2005. Far more damaging was the Airline Deregulation Act 1978, which handed out financial bonanzas to shareholders--but, in the long term, led to less competition and thus poorer service. Two years later, Ronald Reagan famously dismissed 11,359 of the nation's 12,000 air-traffic controllers for going on strike; today the US air-traffic control system is antiquated and working far beyond its capacity.

The airlines I have to travel on most are US Airways and United--at the moment, I have 396,812 miles in my United Mileage account--and they are probably the worst of the six giants. US Airways is the smaller of the two, but still runs nearly 4,000 daily flights serving 240 destinations in 28 countries, with a workforce of more than 37,000; but it was bankrupt from 2002 to 2005, during which it not only tried to pare costs down to the bone, but sliced off slivers of the bone itself. Previously, roughly 40 per cent of its revenue was spent on the workforce, but that has now plunged to just 17 per cent--leading to a demoralised staff who care less and provide increasingly bad service.

Countless thousands of airline staff have found their treasured pensions disappear in smoke and their pay slashed in the "reorganisations"--and they are the lucky ones who have kept their jobs. "The entire industry is in a death spiral, including this company, and I can't get us out of it. Deregulation is an abysmal failure and we have no more furniture left to burn," Bruce Lakefield, then chief executive officer of US Airways, said in 2004. The following year, Lakefield took home what, to him, was doubtless the insultingly paltry sum of $2.2m.


United, which has 56,000 employees and operates a fleet of 459 aircraft, was bankrupt from 2002 until last year--and its service went from bad to dismal. Yet Glenn Tilton, the CEO who shepherded United into bankruptcy when the entire company was valued at just $20m, nevertheless managed to take home $39.7m last year. (Don't ask me to explain this sort of financial smoke-and-mirrors, because I can't: the wretched US Airways recently bid $9. …

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