Has Airline Consolidation Really Been a Boon For Travelers?

Flickr user HappyRelm

During a recent conversation with Charlie Rose, United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek spoke on the benefits of consolidation in the airline industry.

Smisek opines the corporations’ increased profits means greater investments in the airline’s fleets, including new planes and global WiFi.

“That costs a lot of money,” Smisek said. “And to do that, you’ve got to make money to be able to make those sorts of investments.”

A proposed merger between the bankrupt American Airlines and US Airways is currently under review by the Justice Department. Last month, antitrust lawyer Joseph Alioto filed suit seeking to block the merger, claiming consumers would be negatively impacted. Although attorneys for both airlines decried the suit as baseless, the Government Accountability Office reported that nearly 1,700 routes between would lose a competitor as a result of the merger, affecting more than 53 million passengers.

When United and Continental merged in 2010, competition was decreased across more than 1,100 routes, according to the GAO.

Just how many airlines have caught merger fever? Take a look at this list.

While consolidation has undoubtedly helped the airline’s bottom line, how has it affected the passengers? With fewer airlines vying for your business and fewer flights to and from your destinations, passengers are at the mercy of increasingly large monolithic airlines that, like major banking institutions, are rapidly becoming “too big to fail.”

William McGee, a travel expert with the non-profit Consumers Union (publishes Consumer Reports magazine) raised those and several other issues when testifying about in front of a US Senate Judiciary meeting regarding United’s merger with Continental. McGee testified the airline mergers meant loss of service for many cities, higher fares, reductions in service quality and the threat of widespread service disruptions.

Photo Of The Day: Guatemalan Ice Cream Truck

Photo of the Day - Guatemalan ice cream
Adam Baker, Flickr


I’m traveling in Sicily this week, and was reminded how crummy the aptly named Continental breakfast can be in this part of Europe: a cup of coffee (the only time of day it is socially acceptable to have a cappuccino, incidentally) and a roll or small pastry. While I’m not a person who starts every day with steak, eggs and a short stack, the Italian “breakfast” makes me yearn for an English fry-up, or the protein-heavy array of cheeses in Turkey and Russia. The good news (for me, at least) is that in Sicily in the summer, it is customary to have gelato for breakfast. An ideal scoop of a nutty flavor like pistachio, tucked inside a slightly sweet brioche, makes for a quite satisfying breakfast sandwich. Ice cream is a thing we tend to eat more of on vacation, and it’s always fun to try local flavors and variations. You know, in the name of cultural research.

Today’s Photo of the Day by Flickr user AlphaTangoBravo shows an ice cream cart in Guatemala. Guatemalans love to add strawberry syrup to their ice cream, and carts are found year-round in Antigua, but sensitive stomachs should be warned: the street cart stuff is likely to cause worse than an ice cream headache.

Share your travel food photos in the Gadling Flickr pool (Creative Commons, please) and you might see it as a future Photo of the Day.

First domestic 787 begins construction

Production and delivery of the 787 jumbo jet is starting to shift into high gear, and as ANA shows off its new Japanese aircraft the focus is now turning to the domestic carriers. Delivery of the new Boeing aircraft to its first domestic carrier is slated for the merged Continental/United airlines — it was Continental’s order (in 2004!) before the two giants joined forces.

Planned for delivery in the beginning of next year, the 787 is scheduled to begin service between Auckland, NZ and Houston, Texas.

In its current state, the aircraft is just having its wings attached at the Boeing plant in Washington. If you look closely, you can see that the fuselage is in multiple pieces and the tail isn’t even in sight. Either way, that fact that the airplane is on the production line is exciting news — we look forward to seeing the inside.

Tom Stuker becomes first frequent flyer to pass 10 million miles, United celebrates

Ryan Bingham exists in real life, and his name is Tom Stuker. Mr. Stuker, an automotive consultant based in Chicago has been flying United for over 20 years, and this Saturday afternoon, somewhere between Los Angeles and Chicago he officially crossed the line over 10 million frequent flyer miles.

To celebrate, the folks at United hosted a private celebration at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, shutting down a section of a C concourse Red Carpet Club for a celebration with Mr. Stuker’s family, United CEO Jeff Smisek, Mileage Plus President Jeff Foland and a few dozen people from the community.

For his part, Tom Stuker doesn’t seem the least bit weary from his 10 million miles of travel. At just under six feet tall and with a steady, affable smile, he emerged from the Los Angeles flight full of energy and to the cheers of scores of waiting media and friends. In the Red Carpet Club he floated around the room mingling with assorted, eager miletalkers and accepting pats on the back from the wayward executive or marketing agent, effortlessly smiling as the media soaked up his glee.

Among the gestures that United made in recognition of his efforts came a single-edition, titanium Global Services membership card, a scale mockup of the upcoming United 787 and a framed certificate stating his achievement. The most impressive gift, however, was Tom Stuker’s name on the side of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, similar to the achievement that Ryan Bingham received in Up in the Air.

Perhaps most moving was the humility with which Mr. Stuker accepted his praise. His speech, hand written on three pages of wide rule notebook paper, was a reflection on his time with the airline and a heartfelt thank you to all of the staff with whom he had become friends over the years. He spoke of the difficulty during the United bankruptcy and the subsequent merger, moving himself nearly to tears on several occasions, but remaining gracious and optimistic the entire time.

The underlying theme of Mr. Stuker’s speech, however, kept returning: it was not only a milestone for one frequent flyer but rather for the entire airline — years of work building one of the world’s largest airlines, weathering a merger, a rough economy and an ultra competitive market. For everyone in the room there was much to celebrate, and for this one brief afternoon there were smiles on the faces of Jeff Smisek, the ramp workers and the flight attendants alike.

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[Editor’s note: it shall be noted that Tom Stuker flew all of his 10M miles on United while Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air earned his miles in various means — but we still think that the comparison is bang on. Judge away.]

Twin United pilots throw opening pitches in Chicago’s crosstown classic

The rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox is no doubt one of the greatest in the sports community, each teams reflecting the vastly different attitudes and culture between the north and south sides of Chicago. Despite the tension, however, there’s always room for some joviality, and this year, United jumped into the fray by bringing a pair of its identical twin pilots down to U.S. Cellular field to throw the first pitches.

Identical twin pilots you say? Yes indeed. Turns out, the Rayl brothers had parallel careers at United and Continental respectively, and now that the airlines have merged they work for the same company. It’s almost like our resident pilot Kent Wien and his brother Kurt at American Airlines. Only identical. And slightly creepier.