Farewell to a Snakebitten Industry

Keith L. Alexander is heading to the Metro section as Del Wilbur picks up the beat in the near future.
Keith L. Alexander is heading to the Metro section as Del Wilbur picks up the beat in the near future. (Eric Gaillard - Reuters)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Terrorism. Bankruptcies. Labor strikes.

And now snakes.

Yep, that's my cue. This week's Business Class column will be my last. After spending more than five years covering the airline industry and business travel, I am moving on to The Post's Metro section, where I will be covering social issues and crime beginning this fall.

But don't despair. Business Class will resume in the coming weeks. My colleague Del Wilber is taking over the job of monitoring how the airlines, hotels and car rental companies are conducting business.

Sitting in the movie theater this weekend watching Samuel L. Jackson fight the latest threat to the airlines in "Snakes on a Plane," I was reminded of what a ride the past few years have been.

When we launched the column in 2001, US Airways and United Airlines were trying to merge and Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson planned to start his own airline, DC Air. But the government nixed the US Airways and United deal and Johnson decided to start his own basketball team in Charlotte, instead.

Eventually, the Washington area ended up losing its two largest hometown carriers. Arlington-based US Airways traveled twice through bankruptcy and merged with America West Airlines last fall, relocating to Phoenix. And Independence Air, the fledgling Dulles-based airline with its $50 fares, closed up shop after 19 months.

Overall, the airline industry has been hit with numerous punches over the years, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, the subsequent security concerns, the SARS outbreak and endless financial woes.

The new Transportation Security Administration became the frequent flier's best friend and biggest headache. Videoconferencing emerged as a popular alternative to travel. And the Acela train service emerged as the New York shuttle's biggest competitor.

Thousands of airline employees lost their jobs, pensions and benefits as the industry retrenched and low-cost carriers gained strength, driving down ticket prices.

Still, fees were a constant topic. We saw airlines increase or add fees for everything from bags of peanuts and pretzels, pillows, checking bags at the curb and soft drinks (American Eagle's $1 soda test). Some of you joked that pay toilets might be next. We'll see.

Several passengers learned the hard way not to argue with flight attendants. Regardless of whether you think your position is correct and the flight attendant's is wrong, at least wait until you get to your destination to make your point. Otherwise, as actress and comedian Mo'Nique learned last month, you will be catching a different flight out.

During my time as columnist, the most important thing I learned is that BizClass readers are some of the savviest business travelers anywhere. Please continue to be our eyes and ears. My biggest regret has always been that I could not respond to the hundreds of e-mails (some of which ran two to three pages long) I received each week. And major thank-yous to our BizClass Informants (those of you whom I e-mailed repeatedly about industry issues) and Flyertalkers, those frequent flyers on Flyertalk.com.

Travelers do have a voice and can often get things changed. Remember when Hertz tried to charge a $2.50 reservation fee on its vehicles rented in the United States? The company backed off the idea within days of the plan hitting the column. Or when Northwest tried to get a little extra income by charging passengers $15 for an aisle or exit-row seat? Within a week, Northwest adjusted by allowing its most frequent passengers to book those seats for free.

Few columns sparked as much outrage from readers as those about whether passengers should be able to recline their seats, especially at a time when airlines are cramming more seats in their coach cabins. Remember the $15 plastic device, the Knee Defender, which passengers hooked onto the seat in front of them to prevent that passenger from reclining into their laps?

To this day, I have colleagues who will never use an airline blanket again following the column on US Airways' decision to no longer automatically replace the used blankets left behind on passenger seats between flights. Instead, it ordered employees to do visual inspections for soils or stains to determine if the blanket should be refolded and stored for the next flight rather than removed and cleaned. As long as the blankets appear clean, the airline will swap them out between one and seven days, depending on the type of flight.

So while laughing (and honestly flinching) through most of "Snakes," the movie got me thinking about what else the airline industry could face in the coming years.

Unfortunately, the ongoing terrorism threat probably means heightened security and more restrictions on passengers for years to come. Higher fares are likely as the industry feels more comfortable in raising ticket prices. We also probably have not seen the end of consolidation as airlines look to merge with other carriers to grow and reduce costs.

In the near term, Northwest Airlines' flight attendants could begin disrupting flights as of Friday if both sides don't agree on a new contract by then.

With this industry, it's amazing that Snakes' producers actually thought a few venom-spewing reptiles could actually unsettle airline passengers. For many frequent fliers, it's just life in the air.

United Closes Reservation Center: Just as United Airlines announced plans that it was expanding the number of flights at Dulles, the airline also told its 450 reservation agents at its Sterling, Va., center that it would be closing the office as of Oct. 16.

United has operated a reservation center in the Washington area for the past 20 years. Workers will be offered jobs at United's other reservation centers, in Chicago, Detroit or Honolulu. United also has call center in Bombay,.

Those agents who don't wish to relocate are eligible to apply for jobs as a customer service agents, or flight attendants at Dulles, said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. The airline has numerous available openings at the airport.

United is reducing the number of call centers as it directs more travelers to use its Web site.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company