Make Airline CEOs Fly Coach

If you heard this from those who run the "grand old airlines" — legacy carriers like American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways — what would you suppose they were talking about?

"Hate it!"


"Absolutely despicable."

If you guessed soaring fuel prices, you'd be wrong (though of course, they do hate that). No, what I'm talking about is the longtime, everyday enemy of the big boys: the Internet.

Long before oil became the bogeyman of the airline industry, the Internet started killing off profits. Let's go back to the mid to late '90s when some clever people at Microsoft noted that Internet + travel = $$$$ and set in motion the whole shop online for cheap airfare process that allows consumers to compare dozens of prices instantly.

In the old days, who noticed if one airline charged a few bucks (or many bucks) more than a rival? But, they can't get away with that anymore; the rise of de-regulation has spawned lower cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue that use the Internet to shamelessly flaunt their cheap fares.

And, thanks to the Internet, passengers have been able to take control when it comes to getting great deals. In effect, we have become our own travel agents, and for the most part we like it.

Or we did. Before fuel prices starting going insane.

Now there are fewer deals, and fewer airlines — leading to a brand-new parlor game: Guess Which Airline Will Go Bankrupt Next? And that is leading some people to advocate a new solution to the airline woes: Dump de-regulation. Let Uncle Sam take the reins, and make Internet air travel shopping a footnote in commercial aviation history.

That is what former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall wants to do. He was the recent subject of a Business Week piece titled, "How I'd Save the Industry" and he advocates a return to government regulation — albeit in a "kindler, gentler" form where bureaucrats set airline ticket prices to assure profits for the big airlines while erecting barriers for new startups to jump into domestic air travel.

The point of deregulation was to let the free market rule. And if bringing air travel to the masses is any indicator of success, deregulation has been a resounding triumph as almost 300 percent more airline tickets were sold in 2007 than before deregulation with only a 25 percent growth in population.

So what now, a return to the days where flying is for the rich? And that will solve everything? I don't think so. All it would do is guarantee fewer people in the air, though it would assure profits for the older airlines. And the passengers would get what out of this?

Every day on my blog, I chat with fliers all over the country (and the world), and they all say they long to get to their destinations as quickly and painlessly as possible, or they absolutely need to do this (the road warriors among us). And you might be surprised at how many of them say, "Yeah, we'd be willing to pay a premium for that." I mean, if you could hop into Captain Kirk's transporter room and get beamed to Las Vegas and back with your person and luggage intact — every time — wouldn't you pay more?

But are you willing to pay stiff re-regulation prices? And I'm not talking about paying substantially higher prices for an exhilarating Beam me up, Scotty experience; I'm talking about paying those prices for the abysmal flying experience we get today.

Airlines don't think you will, and given the state of customer satisfaction with the industry these days, they're probably right — which is why we have now entered the Age of Airline Fees.

Yes, those crazy fuel prices hastened the era of airline a la carte fees — though, the idea actually began percolating a few years back. That's when airlines were struggling to come up with ways to make it harder for consumers to compare airline tickets prices on the dreaded Internet. And the airlines did make it harder: sure, the Internet still told you what your basic ticket cost, but if you're weren't paying attention to the fine print on the Web Site, you were in for a surprise at the airport — whether it was that first checked-bag fee, or discovering that your free Coke is soon going to cost you $2.

So here's my plan, or, the start of a plan, anyway — to begin fixing the airline industry.

Fix the Core Issues: Delays, cancellations, luggage.

Use the airline ticket taxes (15 to 25 percent of the airfare) for cockpit GPS technology — you know, that stuff that most of us already have on our cell phones (and do it now — not by the year 2020).

Require airlines and airports to license a working version of a UPS-style "package tracking system" for all bags.

Southwest 101: Mandatory course requirement.

Airline executives would have to learn customer service management techniques from one of America's most popular airlines (and, at the moment, one of America's only profitable airlines)/

Exec Cattle Drive: Fly the way your passengers do.

Require each member of the legacy airlines' board of directors to fly in coach (with two checked-bags, a laptop and carry-on — through New York or Chicago), while passing through normal security lines (at 7:30 a.m. on Monday) and, boarding in the last group. Require board members do this once a month, and report back to shareholders. Wonder how many months it would take before the airlines started fixing delays and lost bags if this were a federal requirement?

Once these have been implemented get rid of the "nickel and dimeing" fees and raise airfares high enough to cover costs (or at minimum disclose during shopping and let us pay for the total trip at the time of ticket purchase).

By the way, don't misunderstand me: Crandall, has a laundry list of laudable ideas, but I am concerned that this yearning for the "good old days" of airline ticket price regulation will keep many of us from flying and that would be a shame — not to mention the potential downstream effects on the U.S. travel economy.

For better or worse, the airlines have become mass transit in this vast nation of ours; and while folks are willing to pay more in difficult times, they still want to ferret out decent deals on airfare.

And the best tool for finding those deals is still the Internet. The Internet is how we do business these days. It's how we help live our lives. It is not going away.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.