- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

CHICAGO

First it was soaring ticket prices and vanishing bargain fares, then new baggage fees. Now air travelers are facing dwindling choices of when they can fly and where - even to such popular tourist destinations as Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.

The squeeze, a byproduct of record oil prices that are pushing airlines toward financial disaster, accelerated Wednesday when United Airlines announced plans to take 70 more jets out of service and cut domestic capacity by 17 to 18 percent in 2008-09. Its discount unit, Ted, will be shut down and 1,100 additional jobs will be eliminated, with more to follow.

That came two weeks after a similar move by AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, the only U.S. carrier larger than United, which said it will slash domestic capacity 11 to 12 percent after the peak summer travel season. American already has begun eliminating flights, as have No. 3 Delta Air Lines Inc. and others.

That’s bad news for travelers, especially those who fly out of smaller regional airports that are losing flights and service, and it’s almost certain to get worse unless oil prices drop and take the pressure off airlines to keep shrinking. “For the next year or so, it’s going to be gloom and doom” in terms of fares and flight options, said air travel authority Tom Parsons.

While United didn’t specify routes or flights to be trimmed, the airlines already have begun targeting less-profitable flights even if they are to leisure destinations with strong demand. Several carriers have reduced service to Las Vegas, Honolulu and elsewhere; Delta’s service to and from Orlando is down 45 percent from a year ago.

While demand for tickets to those destinations remains solid, the airlines say they have to focus on higher-priced and more-profitable routes in the face of sky-high fuel prices.

Airline consultant Robert Mann said the tourism and travel industries as a whole are subject to “serious collateral damage,” with a likely drop in air travelers to hotels and resorts in places that have flourished with the proliferation of low airfares.

The outlook may be grimmest of all for airlines that don’t cut back enough to survive oil trading above $122 a barrel, even after a decline from $135. That’s still well more than double the $50-a-barrel price that United pegged to its business plan after emerging from bankruptcy in 2006.

“Some airlines will likely go bankrupt and cease operating,” Lehman Brothers analyst Joseph Campbell said in a note to investors Wednesday.

That might help the bottom lines of those that manage to keep flying, but it would only speed a trend of narrowing U.S. flight options that has been under way for months.

The largest airports might see only a small decline in flight options, but smaller cities such as Lancaster, Pa., and Ithaca, N.Y., already have lost all service. Experts say others in the East, Midwest and beyond are likely to see individual carriers depart or also lose service completely.

UAL Corp.’s United said it plans to cut an additional 900-to-1,100 salaried, contract and management employees by the end of the year, in addition to 500 previously announced job reductions. The combined reductions mean the airline is cutting nearly 3 percent of its 55,600 workers worldwide.

“With fuel at historically high levels, United and our competitors need to redefine ourselves in this marketplace,” Glenn F. Tilton, United’s chairman, president and CEO, said in a message to employees.

United said it plans to ground its entire fleet of 94 Boeing B737s as well as six of the company’s 747s - its oldest and least-fuel-efficient planes. It previously said it was going to mothball 30 of the jets. It is scrapping the coach-only Ted service and reconfiguring those planes to include first-class seats.

*AP business writers Dan Caterinicchia in Washington, Adam Schreck in New York and Harry Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.

AIRLINE CUTBACKS

Rising fuel prices are clipping air carriers’ wings.

*FEWER FLIGHTS: United Airlines became the latest U.S. carrier to announce big cutbacks in the face of soaring fuel prices Wednesday. The UAL Corp.-owned airline said it will reduce domestic capacity 17 to 18 percent in 2008-09, take another 70 jets out of service, scrap its discount carrier Ted and eliminate 1,100 additional jobs, with more to come.

*SMALLEST SUFFER: Travel experts say the reductions will be felt the most in small cities and at regional airports that are losing some or all service as the industry shrinks and smaller and older planes are grounded.

*TOURISM IMPACT: Experts say the higher fares and elimination of flights or routes to popular leisure destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., will hurt hotels and resorts that have prospered in an era of cheaper fares.

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