The airline industry wants to thank you. Last year, it was mired in despair. The post-financial crisis recession left the carriers beleaguered and desperate for a turn of fortune. Corporate and leisure travel had fallen precipitously, and doubling down on extra fees, though prudent for profits, alienated both those considering a flight and the passengers with little choice but to hit the road. The brutality of 2009 was evident, and it seemed as though all there was for 2010 was the hope for something better.
Well, hope paid off.
Three quarters into this year, money is again beginning to flow, as a result of (finally) climbing fares, additional fees and an increase in passenger traffic. United Continental, Southwest and JetBlue have reported strong profits for the third quarter using a variety of tactics, but an increase in sales and higher prices appear to be the universal driver. And, this may translate to a bit more elbow room for you.
According to the Associated Press, airlines are beginning to bring back some of the routes they cut last year, as indicated by decisions at Delta and American Airlines to hire more flight attendants. The challenge, however, will be to increase capacity (and thus headcount) without imperiling this year’ hard-won profits.
The business of satisfying pent-up demand isn’t easy for the airline sector. After all, capacity can’t be added one seat at a time. Restoring a route to handle more passengers comes with it the obligation to fill the plane (to the extent possible) each time, in accordance with revenue per available seat mile (RASM) targets.
Nonetheless, the carriers seem ready to rise to the challenge. JetBlue is amping up fourth quarter capacity by up to 10 percent, with Delta looking at an increase of 5 percent to 10 percent. This follows even faster growth in September, according to the Associated Press:
Still, most of the airlines saw traffic rise even faster than capacity in September suggesting they have enough business to support the additional flights. The only exception was Delta, which added capacity slightly faster than traffic rose.
The moves come in anticipation of a strong 2011, according to Ray Neidl, an analyst for Maxim Group. He tells the associated press that the growth in capacity “is a little more long-term,” adding that “[d]espite the lackluster economy, it’s going to be a big year for airlines, especially as consolidation kicks in.”
So, what does this mean for the flying public?
Well, you may not have to occupy that middle seat for a little while, and the odds that someone else will be in it may be improving. The increase in capacity necessarily precedes an increase in sufficient demand to make it profitable, so enjoy it while you can! If the airlines can’t fill those new seats, a return to austerity could send you back to sharing an armrest.
[photo by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr]