War and the Airlines

Last year's bankruptcy filings by US Airways and United Airlines set off a wave of anxiety from readers wondering if it was safe to book either airline and who were worried about frequent-flier miles.

Brace yourself: Experts warn that other major U.S. carriers are already endangered, and war with Iraq could push them over the edge.

"There could be additional bankruptcies" if war breaks out, especially if the federal government doesn't step in to help, says Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association (ATA), a trade group for the airline industry.

The quick and successful Persian Gulf War 12 years ago cut deeply into passenger numbers, especially overseas, and pushed Eastern Airlines into oblivion. War would hurt the airlines even more this time, because they are already in precarious shape.

Higher ticket prices are not likely for consumers, though. "Raising fares is next to impossible because of low-cost carriers and deep industry discounting," American Airlines CEO Don Carty told employees last week, as he asked for more help in cutting wages.

The industry went to Capitol Hill last week to plead its case, reporting that U.S. carriers lost more than $10 billion last year and are in debt more than $100 billion. In the event of war, the airlines anticipate they will cut capacity further and would like to discuss schedules among themselves -- currently against antitrust laws.

Consumers will probably continue to enjoy low fares for the foreseeable future. But in the long term, if airlines continue to suffer without relief, passengers will feel the pain.


London Auto Surcharge

London bound? You may want to think twice about renting a car. "Congestion charging" goes into effect tomorrow in central London, and cars driving or parked on its streets weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. must now pay the city a daily fee of 5 pounds -- about $8. Streets are policed by cameras similar to those that catch D.C.'s red-light runners. Penalties for failure to pay can reach $200. Some rental companies are expected to pay the fee and pass it on to customers; others (Avis, for one) require renters to pay the city directly, by phone and credit card.

When cabbing it in from the airport, opt for one of London's big, boxy licensed black cabs, which are exempt from the fee; others are not and will likely pass it on to you. For a map and other info on congestion charging: Transport for London, www.cclondon.com. CoGo's recommendation: Take the tube or train.


Delta Connection has cut round-trip fares between Reagan National and Atlantic City to as low as $138 on weekends, $99 for walk-up passengers . . . Crystal Cruises is offering insurance that gives passengers a 90 percent credit should they decide to postpone their cruise for any reason, up to three days before departure . . . SUX remains the airport code for Sioux City, Iowa, the Federal Aviation Administration has decided, even though SUX would like a different code. SUX plans to appeal.


San Diego, Sweet

Southwest is offering a sale fare to mark its new nonstop service between BWI and San Diego, scheduled to begin July 6. The $99-each-way fare is good for travel July 6 until the end of the airline's published schedule, which is currently Aug. 12. The sale applies only to the daily nonstop flight, which leaves BWI at 7:10 p.m. and departs San Diego at 7:05 a.m. Tickets must be purchased by July 6; round-trip fare is $216.50, including taxes.

Reporting: Sharon Isch, Cindy Loose, Carol Sottili.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to: cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-912-3609. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.