With fuel prices going through the roof, airlines are cutting costs and raising revenue in ways that once were unthinkable. Above, passengers waited in long lines at the American Airlines ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on April 9 when the airline canceled at least 850 flights to inspect grounded jets.
Carriers may start treating passengers like freight
"Nothing is beyond (the) imagination" of airline executives eager to raise revenue
Imagine two scales at the airline ticket counter, one for your bags and one for you. The price of a ticket depends upon the weight of both.
That may not be so far-fetched.
"You listen to the airline CEOs, and nothing is beyond their imagination," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. "They have already begun to think exotically. Nothing is not under the microscope."
He declined to say what any individual airline may be contemplating, including charging passengers based on weight.
With fuel costs almost tripling since 2000 -- and now accounting for as much as 40 percent of operating expenses at some carriers, according to the ATA -- airlines are cutting costs and raising revenue in ways that once were unthinkable.
U.S. Airways Group Inc. has eliminated snacks. Delta Air Lines Inc. is charging $25 for telephone reservations. AMR Corp.'s American Airlines last month became the first U.S. company to charge $15 for the first checked bag.
Even a cold drink may be harder to come by aloft.
Singapore Airlines Ltd. is "trying to eliminate unnecessary quantities of extra water" to save weight, Chief Executive Officer Chew Choon Seng said in an interview.
U.S. airlines reported combined first-quarter losses of $1.7 billion and crude oil almost doubled in a year to a record $133.17 a barrel on May 21. With those challenges, fares based on passenger weight may be a logical step, said Robert Mann, head of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consultant based in Port Washington, New York.
"If you look at the air-freight business, that's the way they've always done it," he said. "We're getting treated like air freight when we travel by airlines, anyway."
David Swierenga, president of consulting firm Aeroecon in Round Rock, Texas, dismissed weight-based ticket sales and steep price increases as unrealistic.
Still, "the airlines are just in a desperate situation," he said.
Since December, eight companies have ceased flying, largely because of fuel costs -- MaxJet Airways Inc., Big Sky Transportation Co., Aloha Airlines Inc., ATA Airlines, Skybus Airlines Inc., Eos Airlines, Silverjet Plc. and the charter-flight operator Champion Air. Air Midwest, a division of Mesa Air Group Inc., is ending operations this month.
Airlines may report combined losses of $6.1 billion this year, the worst since 2003, according to the International Air Transport Association in Istanbul.
Swierenga said the only meaningful way for them to reach profitability is to idle a portion of their fleets, which would allow them to reduce costs associated with fuel and labor.
"The solution lies in capacity cuts," he said.
That's already begun. American said on May 21 as many as 45 planes, most of them aging Boeing Co. MD-80s, will be dropped from its 655-jet fleet along with as many as 40 aircraft from its 305- plane Eagle regional unit.
"Most other airlines will have similar cuts as well," said Jim Corridore, an analyst for Standard & Poor's in New York.
Airlines have also taken shorter-term steps even if they have stopped short of weighing passengers.
Southwest Airlines Co. comes closest, asking passengers to buy a second seat if their girth prevents the armrest from lowering.
The airline is also flying slower -- by 72 seconds, for example, on Houston to Los Angeles flights, which now take 3 hours 14 minutes. That saves 8.7 gallons of fuel for each of the airline's four daily nonstops on the 1,387-mile route, or 34.8 gallons a day overall, said Marilee McInnis, a company spokes-woman.
Japan Airlines Corp. is using crockery in first-class and business-class cabins that is 20 percent lighter than the service items they replaced.
American Airlines has switched from using on-board power units that draw down jet fuel while planes are parked at gates to electrical generators on the ground, said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Europe's second-largest airline, is one of several that has begun washing planes more frequently because dirt on a fuselage increases wind resistance, said Lott.
With reporting by Andrea Rothman in Istanbul and Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas.