Live Free And Fly

Live Free And Fly

They say that British General Cornwallis ordered the band to play The World Turned Upside Down when he surrendered to George Washington after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Neither of them knew it for sure at that particular moment, but the Revolutionary War was essentially over.

I think it may be time to cue the band again. A few heartfelt choruses of The World Turned Upside Down would be the perfect soundtrack for this week’s developments in the airline world (this article was originally published on Jan. 9). The Big Six may not fully understand it, but it’s over for them.

In case you’ve been too busy trying to keep track of how many holiday flights were canceled for security reasons, let me offer you a quick recap of this week’s startling events:

Delta Air Lines cut mainline jet capacity at its Salt Lake City hub by 17 percent yesterday. That’s on top of a 20 percent cut that Delta has engineered in the last four years at Salt Lake City. And it comes just a few weeks before Delta further downsizes its now shriveled hub at Dallas/Fort Worth.

On Tuesday, Northwest Airlines cut flights by about 18 percent at its Memphis hub. Where once there were 242 daily flights, there are now just 198. At its other hubs, Mesaba, a Northwest Airlink commuter carrier, is facing a strike by pilots on Saturday. That would ground about 600 daily flights and cut or eliminate service to more than 100 cities on the Northwest route map.

On Wednesday, American Airlines rolled out a fly-two-get-one-free promotion on the same day that JetBlue Airways launched its first flights from Boston to Florida, Denver and Long Beach, California. American, a big player in Boston, is desperate to staunch JetBlue’s growth, especially after failing to run JetBlue off its transcontinental routes from New York/Kennedy. Hence the free-ticket bribe, which only applies on American routes from New York or Boston to Florida and California.

And over at US Airways, chief executive David Siegel cancelled his traveling “give me salvation” show after being told by his employees that they have no more givebacks to give the airline’s thuggish management. And word leaked out that the carrier, which is hemorrhaging $1 million a day after a trip through the bankruptcy courts, nearly $1 billion in federal loan guarantees and two rounds of employee concessions, has hired Morgan Stanley to find buyers for its few remaining assets.

Meanwhile, the alternate carriers were making stunning inroads on the battlefield.

Besides JetBlue’s advance into Boston this week, it also announced the March launch of nonstop flights between New York and Sacramento, California. And it even revealed plans to add free XM satellite-radio and pay-per-view video programming to its in-flight live-television service.

AirTran, which has been munching Delta’s lunch at their shared Atlanta hub, was preparing for its expansion at Dallas/Fort Worth, where it will be moving to four gates in Terminal B. It also announced it would add XM radio service on flights. Southwest is adding a slew of new, nonstop routes in the next two weeks and is gearing up for its May assault on US Airways’ Philadelphia hub. America West will soon be adding flights to six cities at its Las Vegas hub. And Frontier will be launching service to three new cities from its Denver hub and beginning point-to-point flights from Los Angeles.

Like I said, fellow travelers, time to strike up the band and play The World Turned Upside Down. And I didn’t even mention Ted, United’s idiotic foray into low-fare service that launches next month. After all, why bother talking about another attempt at a low-fare airline from a Big Six carrier when the low-fare start-up isn’t even well thought out enough to offer low fares?

This startling turn of events–the big, powerful evil empires of the Big Six being humbled by gnats who’ve turned themselves into 800-pound guerillas–should come as no surprise.

Ever since Northwest stranded thousands of travelers on the snowbound runways of Detroit in January of 1999, average travelers have begun to understand that the alternate carriers offer more and charge less than the Big Six. Ever since the United Airlines meltdown in the summer of 2000, frequent flyers have begun to realize that the Big Six really do not deliver what they promise and no longer even try. Ever since 9/11, after we’ve given the Big Six billions of tax dollars only to watch them fritter it away on egregious executive compensation packages and dishonored and dishonorable business models, we’ve begun to feel that it is over for them.

And this week, finally, we can all see that the airline world has turned upside down. Soon we’ll be free of their convoluted fare structures, their overpaid managements and their arrogant assumption that business travelers will never fight back against rapacious fares and repulsive service.

The next few years will be tricky, but we’ll survive. Like the remnants of the British Army after Yorktown, the Big Six won’t go away right away. There might even be another battle or two to fight before we’re rid of them.

But we know now that the airline world has turned upside down and that the Revolution has been successful. We’ll all be free soon.

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