We Loved That Airline To Death

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 5, 2006


Everybody was laughing, even the passengers whose $79 fares from Tampa to Dulles may shoot up, even the flight attendants who will wake up tomorrow unemployed.

It was the kind of atmosphere you find at hurricane parties or when friends gather with someone who's being evicted the next morning. You've done everything you can to prevent it, but it's about to hit the fan. It's time to count your blessings and break out the bravado.

Independence Air is shutting down tonight, the latest in a long line of low-fare airlines to be grounded by the laws of economics, but flight attendants still spent their final hours in the air vying to be the Henny Youngman of the performance art known as the federally mandated safety announcement: "If today's flight becomes a cruise, your seat cushion serves as a flotation device."

And then, when flight attendant George Bernard found himself reflexively telling a passenger, "Come see us again," he let out a belly laugh.

There is no "again" for Dulles-based Independence, but while employees and customers shared smiles and exchanged good wishes over the past couple of days, the pleasantries masked a harsh divide. Most of the airline workers I spoke to while flying and hanging out at departure gates over the past two days do not blame the company's demise on management. Most blame the passengers and their expectation of a bargain. The enemy is us.

"People are concerned about us, but it's the people who always expect the low fares," said Virna Bartleso, a supervisor at the airline's small operation in Tampa and a four-year veteran of the company, going back to when it was a regional carrier called Atlantic Coast Airlines. "With fuel prices so high and fares so low, the airlines can't make money. But people insist on the low fares."

The most immediate cause of Independence's demise, of course, has hit every airline and every American motorist: Fuel prices have shot up, with no commensurate rise in airfares.

But the fare structure is one reason Independence has joined a necrology of low-cost carriers that stretches over four decades: Freddy Laker, Air Florida, People Express, New York Air. When Independence started up 18 months ago with near-giveaway prices, I happily clicked my way through its perky Web site, picking up $29 and $49 seats to places that the big boys were charging $270 to get to. If I'd taken four seconds to think about how Independence might make money doing that, I might have decided that something was wrong. But I chose to suspend disbelief. I wanted the bargain. No, I decided that I somehow deserved the bargain.

And now the airline workers I met are in the market, many of them intent on finding jobs in any other field, so long as it's a bit more stable.

Does our collective sense of entitlement to cheap prices consign our neighbors to lives of economic uncertainty and insecurity? Most Americans reject that idea; we tell pollsters that we see nothing wrong with Wal-Mart taking over one retail category after another, even if the chain's low prices mean that American manufacturing jobs will be shipped overseas and American Main Streets will wither and die.

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