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Commentary: The Case Against The Big Fat Dopey Airline

(April 9, 2003)

The results are in and it's good news for the air travel consumer. The 2003 Airline Quality Ratings (AQR), a joint study conducted by the University of Nebraska and Wichita State University, show for the second straight year vast improvements by most major airlines. Clearly, two years of cut-backs by the airlines have resulted in better performance. The study results only re-enforce what I've felt for years: the bigger the airline the dumber it gets.

Airline Quality Ratings

1. US Airways
2. Alaska Airlines
3. Southwest Airlines
4. America West Airlines
5. Continental Airlines
6. American Airlines
7. Delta Air Lines
8. United Airlines
9. Northwest Airlines
10. American Eagle

Source: Airline Quality Rating 2003

Smaller Is Better

In the last decade the biggest U.S. airlines just got bigger. It's no coincidence as individual airline operations rapidly grew the air travel experience just became worse. Whether it was air traffic control delays due to putting too many flights in one hub, or poor customer service from hastily trained employees, many airlines had reached a critical mass and appeared to be getting in their own way. To put it bluntly, they became big fat dopey airlines.

I once thought airline consolidation would be a good thing. Today, I know that's not the case. I only need to look back upon my years working for a small airline called USAir (now US Airways) that merged three airlines within six years (PSA, Piedmont, and Trump Shuttle). In the late 80's, it seemed logical to merge all these quality carriers and create one big good airline. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Quality ratings, morale, and most importantly profitability just tanked. Everyone was left wondering what the heck happened to that nice little airline we used to work for? Was it too much of a good thing or lack of cohesion?

It was pretty much lack of cohesion. You see, past airline history has shown consolidating (merging) airlines rarely works. Why? Well, airline employees (especially management) are like dogs: loyal, territorial, stubborn, and somewhat greedy when it comes to sharing their backyard. Ask former TWA and Reno Air employees about their merger with American Airlines and you'll likely see veins pop in their necks along with tears in their eyes.

A lot of people will ask me, why aren't the other airlines like Southwest? Simply put, with the exception of merging with tiny Morris Air in 1993, Southwest has not encumbered itself with massive growth. They have grown for the most part internally and remained true to their core business plan of thirty years: one type of plane (737), one class of service, and point-to-point flying. Where problems arise is when a carrier tries to be all things to all people. Bigger hasn't proven to be better for airlines and more importantly isn't proving to be profitable.

Variety Is Better

US Airways finished first among the airlines in the AQR study because it has gone back to doing what it does best, being a smaller airline. If the airline industry consolidates into just a few carriers, I guarantee you customer service will get worse than it was three years ago. More airlines flying in the skies is a better alternative to a few airlines dominating the skies. Without question, the AQR study has spoken and serves up a cautionary tale and a case against the big fat dopey airline.

Related Sites:

Airline Quality Rating Report - See a summary or the full report from the joint University of Nebraska and Wichita State University study.


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