Is There a Silver Lining in Airline Mergers?

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Sick of terrible travel news? It's not like there's a shortage of it, what with airlines going bust, fuel costs going crazy and passengers going nuts over all the extras they now must pay for.

In fact, a colleague recently bragged to me about how absolutely triumphant she felt simply because she didn't have to pay extra for her aisle seat. My, how times have changed.

But I say enough already. Enough with the doom and gloom. Things aren't all that bad.

For instance, did you know the very first commercial airfare for a trip taken back in 1914 cost $175? A little high, huh? Well, when you adjust for inflation, that airfare would cost you more than $3,600 in today's money. And considering that this inaugural flight only lasted 23 minutes (from St. Petersburg, Fla. to Tampa, Fla.) today's airline tickets are relative bargains.

Yes, there is some good news, and I say we must look on the bright side. So now, with tongue firmly adhered to my cheek, I present the "Top Five List of Airline Merger Silver Linings." But please note: some of these are serious.

#1 — Mergers: Good for Air Traffic Control

Think about it: we're already in the midst of record-breaking cuts in capacity (and by capacity, I mean the total number of seats for passengers), plus there are mergers afoot (Delta/Northwest and a possible United/US Airways get-together). These mergers will spur even deeper capacity cuts. Deeper cuts mean fewer flights on fewer routes.

Let's face it, prices are going up, prices for food, prices for gas, prices for everything, including airline tickets. And it's all being driven by higher fuel costs.

That's the bad news; the good news is: fewer planes in the air will no doubt ease some of the massive stress on the nation's air traffic control system.

The heavy summer travel season is coming up and all those way-too-busy air traffic controllers might actually get a bit of a breather. And you better believe they'd love that; remember last summer, when nearly 30 percent of flights were delayed or cancelled?

I'll never forget it (oh, those endless hours in LaGuardia). And, who knows? Mergers might actually provide years of breathing room, so that maybe — just maybe — the government will get going on some of those long-talked-about (and little-done-about) air traffic control improvements we keep hearing about. Maybe.

#2 — Mergers: Better Than Bankruptcy

We've seen too many airlines go bust this year (Aloha, ATA, Skybus, and more); in some cases, passengers have been stuck with tickets they bought and paid for and will never be able to use. It's also meant a loss of jobs, always a horrible prospect (particularly when there's no notice).

Now, just imagine if two legacy carriers were to go belly-up; we could be looking at a loss of 20 to 25 percent of the nation's domestic traffic, and that would mean prices and inconvenience would go through the roof. We can no longer count on the lower cost airlines coming in to save us by scooping up all those abandoned routes anymore; they have troubles of their own (the soaring fuel prices strike again).

Far better to merge than watch the big boys go bust, leaving many of us stranded with a bagful of useless frequent flyer miles.

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