Airline analysts and e-mail-loving passengers should be celebrating some travel news that broke last week. Not so happy may be anybody who worries about aviation safety. That is, everybody.
Analysts, the folks who work for Wall Street investment houses trying to determine whether to buy or sell airline stocks, were pleased because several major carriers are trimming their capacity, or the number of seats for sale, next year. The high price of fuel is the primary reason. Even if an airline isn't actually reducing what's for sale, it won't be growing as much as it said previously that it would.
That means two things for most customers: higher fares and even more crowded flights.
Besides monitoring the airlines' costs, analysts track the number of seats for sale because it can have a direct effect on airline revenue. Naturally, the stock watchers like airline flights with no empty seats and with all passengers paying as much as they can stand. With fewer seats available, customers who need to travel on business or just want to get away are likely to pay a little more for each ticket.
Anyone who flies regularly may wonder how much more jammed flights can be next year than they have been this year. The load factor, or share of seats filled, tops 80 percent on most carriers and was close to 90 percent for some last summer. So there were some middle seats that flew empty this year that won't be empty, at least through next spring.
Fortunately for Philadelphia fliers, Southwest Airlines, one of the carriers reducing its growth plans, says it will still add nonstop flights in March from PHL to three cities: St. Louis, Austin and San Antonio, Texas. Southwest is the only carrier at the airport that had announced plans for new domestic service next year.
The downside to this scenario, of course, is that some airlines may not be able to raise fares or trim capacity enough to avoid losses this winter. In the long run, that's not good for anyone.
On aviation safety, a report to Congress from the Government Accountability Office took the Federal Aviation Administration to task for a recent increase in "runway incursions." Those are any incidents at an airport when aircraft or people stray where they shouldn't during takeoffs or landings. You can find it online at
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The GAO said the number of incursions had been going down since 2001 but spiked again in fiscal 2007 because of poor leadership, runway-monitoring equipment that doesn't work properly, and air-traffic-controller fatigue caused by workforce shortages.
The level of incursions looks quite small, at 6.05 for every one million takeoffs or landings. But that means there were 31 incidents in fiscal 2007, and the level indicates that passengers face a "high risk of a catastrophic runway collision," the report said. Some incidents this year have been dramatic, including near-collisions at three airports (PHL was not one of them).
We always have thought of aviation safety as playing the odds. Each time the plane starts its takeoff roll, we quietly chant "one in a million, one in a million," as we think of the odds of this particular flight being involved in a fatal accident. The odds actually are even slimmer: In 2006, U.S. scheduled airlines had two fatal accidents in 11.2 million takeoffs, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Still, we're happy that some government agencies and others concerned with safety continually press to reduce the number to zero.
The good news for people who absolutely must check e-mail inflight was in a story we posted Friday on our Road Warrior blog.
JetBlue Airways will start offering free online messaging services this week on one of its planes, making it the first carrier to have in-flight Internet access. Passengers can use Yahoo e-mail and instant-messaging services on laptops with Wi-Fi access and two BlackBerry models with wireless capability.
Other airlines also have announced plans to offer some of the same kind of services in 2008. But there's no change to a rule most passengers like: No talking on a cell phone during flight.
That reminds us: We haven't written about the cell-phone rules in a while. Tell us what you think about the limits now on when you can use a phone on a commercial airline flight, by e-mail, by phone, or by posting a comment on the Road Warrior blog.