It's funny, but after reading George Will's column " 'Creative Destruction' and United Airlines" [op-ed, Dec. 9] on the United Airlines bankruptcy, I can't find any of his pieces decrying other recent business-friendly actions in Washington, such as last month's terrorism insurance legislation or the post-9/11 airline industry bailout. Of course, both are perfect examples of "the pernicious policy of keeping profits private but socializing losses."
Will's real objective seems to be to bash unions once again, as he has done in earlier pieces targeted at the Air Line Pilots Association, the National Education Association and other unions. Read closely, Will's point is that United's real crime was to accede to the principle of worker equity in the first place, and that the chief value of a United bankruptcy is its usefulness as a way to bust another bunch of uppity unions.
-- Donald St. John
While it suits George Will's right-wing philosophy to blame the cost of paying workers for United's financial problems, it doesn't make his statement true.
United's labor cost as a percentage of the airline's total cost per available seat mile (the standard measure of efficiency in the industry) ranks fourth out of the top seven carriers at 41.8 percent -- significantly lower than the costs at Delta (48 percent) and American (44.5 percent) and only slightly higher than at Southwest (39.3 percent). By Will's analysis, Delta and American should already be in bankruptcy, and Southwest should be right behind United.
As Steven Pearlstein wrote in his Dec. 6 analysis [Business], United's and indeed all major network carriers' problem is chronic overcapacity -- or too many empty seats flying around, costing billions. United and US Airways are tops in flying around empty seats.
Failing to match the supply of seats with paying passengers is a failure of management in scheduling the airlines properly, which has also led to poor aircraft and gate utilization. If it's not corrected, it will be the demise of the major network carriers, which could mean the loss of direct air service to 200 to 400 communities across the country.
Management is compounding the overcapacity problem by also failing to make necessary changes to win back the 25 percent of passenger traffic it lost in the past two years, accounting for $20 billion in lost revenue this year over 2000. The biggest part was losing business travelers, who revolted against incomprehensibly high last-minute fares.
Will sets out to prove his faulty assumption by using the old standby of listing the highest wages a few pilots might reach after amassing several decades of seniority, even though most never do. But Will ignores that the overwhelming majority of airline workers are not pilots and earn as little as $17,000 a year.
Will has never been a friend to working people. But no matter how hard Will and airline management try, they won't save the airline industry by bleeding workers. Airline management must learn to understand basic supply and demand to save the industry.
-- Patricia Friend
The writer is international president
of the Association of Flight Attendants.