Anyone who's ever opened a newspaper or flipped on a TV knows the national media is overwhelmingly anti-airline -- except, of course, for the flattering attention paid to the industry darlings: JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. The bias is truly pervasive. I recently searched a hundred random articles about air travel on Disregarding industry press releases and any of my own columns, I found 100 percent of the articles portrayed the industry in a negative light.
Here's a sampling of headlines:
* Airfares head higher
* Complaints on the upswing
* Customer satisfaction is the lowest since 2000
* Misery index expected to rise
* Coffee on airplanes is terrible
* Airlines lost record number of bags
* Price takes precedence over loyalty
* It's harder to find airline award seats
* Discount airlines own the skies
Before examining facts and fiction, let's look at why there is so much negativity toward the airlines. In my opinion, there are two main reasons.
First, bad news sells and, like the Bush administration and pro-gun laws, airlines are an easy target. Second, many travel writers are former travel agents who are still smarting over the loss of their cozy commissions-for-bookings arrangement with the airlines. It's no surprise that Delta Air Lines, which is perhaps hardest hit by the media, was the first airline to slash travel agents' commissions (thereby savings travelers millions of dollars -- that's the good news you don't hear about).
With this bias in mind, let me decipher some of the facts in the fiction.
Air fares head higher. According to a recent report from Business Travel Monitor, domestic airfares hit a six-year low in 2005 -- despite high fuel costs.
Complaints are on the upswing. I believe that many of these complaints stem from the fact that many airlines no longer serve meals on flights, and some have gone so far as to charge for pillows and blankets. Yes, these cutbacks make flying less pleasant. But look at the other side of the ledger: Airlines have also installed self-ticketing kiosks, faster boarding-pass readers and widescreen displays to note flight delays, gate information and upgrade status. Of course, the greatest annoyances to air travelers are things that airlines can't control at all, e.g., weather delays, air traffic control delays and new security measures.
Airlines lost a record number of bags. A recent report found that last year airlines lost more than 30 million pieces of luggage. What the headlines do not announce is that passengers checked in more than 30 billion pieces of luggage, meaning that the loss ratio was just one in a thousand. Even more interesting is that most "lost" bags were returned to their owners within 36 hours; only 240,000 pieces of luggage were never located. So, overall, the airlines did a pretty good job handling passengers' baggage. But "pretty good" doesn't sell newspapers. (Side note: The study cited was commissioned by a company that claims to have a solution for lost airline bags. Can we say, "Vested interest!" here?)
It's harder to find airline award seats. In my experience, this is simply not true. I recently called Delta Air Lines in a quest to get two first class tickets to Hawaii, the most coveted flight award. I was prepared to spend hours with my calendar in hand trying to find the right combination of dates and flight times. Surprisingly, I was able to get tickets with my first request. Furthermore, Randy Petersen, frequent flier guru and coauthor of "The Mileage Pro," states that airlines continue to deliver 80 percent of all free-ticket awards, even as demand increases.
And the biggest mistruth is this one:
Discount airlines own the skies. There is no doubt that the majority of travel writers have a love affair with Southwest and JetBlue. For years, writers have proclaimed the virtues of their beloved upstart airlines over the prehistoric models of the legacy carriers. What these writers fail to consider are the dynamics of the marketplace. Sure, it's been tough for the legacy carriers, but out of the ashes have risen some fairly strong airlines.
The Air Transport Association reports that mainline carriers like American Airlines, United Airlines, Continental Airlines and US Airways should rack up profits for the second quarter of 2006 with overall profitability for the year; a Bear Stearns analyst's report states that American Airlines and Continental should post the biggest gains. Moreover, industry wide, legacy carriers' stocks are trending upward.
I predicted two years ago that the complexity of the airline industry would eventually hurt JetBlue and Southwest. And look what has happened.
* During the last quarter of 2005, JetBlue marked its first loss, and its stock price has fallen approximately 33 percent this year. The company's woes stem from its own ambition. While JetBlue was operating one type of aircraft on limited routes, it had an easy time controlling operating costs. Now that JetBlue wants to play with the big boys, adding more routes and another type of aircraft (the Embraer 190) to its fleet, the flying is no longer so smooth.
* Likewise, due to increasing labor costs, lower margins and increasing competition from legacy carriers, Southwest Airlines has had to implement two fare hikes this year and abandon its much-lauded $299 fare cap. Not surprisingly, JPMorgan reports that US Airways is experiencing strong unit-revenue growth, chiefly from generating up to 20 percent higher revenues in markets once dominated by Southwest.
Why are there so many mistruths in travel writing?
In short, there is no accountability. Every graduate student knows that the best articles are those that have been submitted for peer review; in serious circles, feedback from colleagues is welcomed.
Not so among travel writers. I recently wrote to a columnist who had opined that it was crazy to remain loyal to airline frequent flier programs because he could not find "preferred seating" on a Continental flight out of Newark. When I informed him that I had conducted an informal survey of 11 flight segments and found exit rows or aisle seats on all segments without claiming any level of loyalty, he blocked me from his e-mail list.
Ronald Reagan was known for saying, "Trust, but verify." When it comes to reading travel articles, this advice just might be the right ticket.

Joel Widzer