Airlines run out of services to cut, eye flights

Cuts aren’t limited to airline employees and passenger amenities. In the next few months, capacity – the number of asses that can be accommodated – will be sliced. Having fewer flights will lower costs and boost the all-important revenue per available seat-mile (RASM) metric. For passengers, the drop in supply is likely to push fares higher and convenience lower (if you’re looking for non-stop flights, you’ll have to look harder).

It’s earnings season – and what happens down on Wall Street will ripple through every airport in the country. Six of the nine top airlines in the United States posted profits for the year – fun! – but they did it on falling sales. What’s that mean for the average traveler? It means airlines have had to cut their way to profits, because they aren’t growing. If passengers aren’t spending as much, all the airlines can do is take away services that cost money. And, with RASM down 19 percent year-over-year for seven U.S. airlines, they have little choice.

If you’ve been on a flight recently, you’ve seen there isn’t much left to cut, which is why airlines are going to be cutting the flights themselves. For the fourth quarter of 2009, total available seat-miles (one person flying one mile on one flight) is expected to fall to 12.4 billion – which is close to post-9/11 levels. Two years earlier (Q4 2007), it was 14.2 billion.

I hope you believe that “getting there is half the fun.” If you do, the decline in non-stop flights won’t bother you as much. Prepare for layovers – lots of ’em. This will help airlines consolidate flights, fill vacancies and boost RASM. But, it also means that you’ll spend a bit more cash at Auntie Anne’s (get some cheese with those pretzels!).

Cutting costs could actually lead to higher prices, which the airlines desperately need – but it means a smaller base of seat-miles on which to make money. Competition will fall on some routes, and overall supply drops – both of which give airlines the power to increase fares. Of course, these really are minor forces compared to broader economic conditions. The ability of customers to pay is ultimately what drives the cost of a ticket, and absent an economic recovery, fares will stay low, as will airline earnings.