Airlines In Nosedive Over High Fuel Costs

An unidentified passenger holds his head as he waits in a long line snaking over the bridge from the main terminal to the A concourse of Denver International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006. Security measures, stepped up in light of the terror plot uncovered in the United Kingdom involving airplanes, created long waits in airports. AP

Business travelers are likely to lose out when the fall off-peak season arrives and airlines that have cut flights slap more restrictions on the cheap fares that usually come that time of year.

Continental on Thursday became the latest airline to announce cutbacks, saying it will shed 3,000 jobs - more than 6 percent of its work force - and reduce capacity by 11 percent this fall.

The industry is battling record fuel costs that have pushed it into its worst crisis since 2001.

Amid that, Continental said its two top executives will forgo pay the rest of this year.

The Houston-based airline said recent fare increases have not covered the cost of fuel, which has nearly doubled in the past year. Continental estimates it will spend $2.3 billion more on fuel this year than last - a difference of $50,000 per employee. Fuel has surpassed labor as Continental's biggest expense.

In a memo to employees, Continental Chief Executive Lawrence Kellner and President Jeffrey Smisek said at current fuel prices Continental is losing money on "a large number of our flights." As fares rise, fewer people will fly, and "we will need fewer employees to operate the airline," they said.

The executives said they expect most of the 3,000 job cuts will be handled through voluntary buyouts to limit layoffs. They didn't rule out more job losses.

Unions were positioning to limit layoffs. Mark Adams, a spokesman for Continental pilots, said he hoped the company would offer attractive buyouts to those near the previous retirement age of 60 so that younger pilots could keep their jobs.

Kellner and Smisek said they will not take salaries or incentive pay the rest of the year. In a regulatory filing, the company said Kellner, who was paid a salary of $712,500 last year, would get $296,875 this year, and Smisek's salary would be cut to $240,000 from $363,300.

Kellner's total compensation last year was valued at nearly $6 million, according to an Associated Press analysis, although about one-third was in stock and option grants that are now worth far less than they were when granted in February 2007 because of the slump in the company's stock.

Many analysts consider Continental to be the healthiest of the six big network carriers, a group that excludes low-fare Southwest Airlines Co. But that did not make Continental immune from cuts - the airline still lost $80 million in the first quarter after earning a profit last year.

"If they did not do it they would be irresponsible," said Ray Neidl, an analyst with Calyon Securities.

"At current fuel prices, the old economics do not work. Ticket prices have to rise dramatically, and the only way that can be achieved is by sharply reducing capacity," he said. "The whole industry has to show this discipline or some big airline will have to go out of business."

Continental is the latest airline to make sharp cutbacks.

On Wednesday, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, the nation's No. 2 carrier, announced it would cut up to 1,100 more jobs, ground 70 airplanes and drop its coach-only service, named Ted. Two weeks ago, AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the nation's largest airline, said it would cut capacity 11 percent to 12 percent after the peak summer travel season and probably eliminate thousands of jobs, though it hasn't given an exact figure.

Delta Air Lines Inc. said in March it would cut U.S. capacity about 10 percent in the second half of 2008. Northwest Airlines Corp., which Delta is buying, has announced smaller reductions, and a Northwest spokeswoman said further moves were being reviewed.

Philip Baggaley, an analyst with Standard & Poor's, said capacity cuts would help, but "we still forecast heavy losses for most airlines this year."

Fewer flights will inevitably lead to higher prices, most in the industry believe.

The biggest U.S. airlines have already raised fares about a dozen times since December, with some of the sharpest increases reserved for nonstop flights that let travelers avoid changing planes at crowded hub airports.

Top tourist destinations like Honolulu, Las Vegas and Orlando are also getting hit hard as airlines eliminate those bargain vacation flights, reports CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes.

Airlines typically cut fares in the fall to spur ticket sales when kids are back in school and family vacations are over. That's likely to remain true this fall, even with Continental, American and United offering far fewer flights, experts say.

"They'll always discount for the fall even if they have less seats," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of price-watching Web site FareCompare.com. "But you're going to see more targeted restrictions, like minimum stay-overs, to prevent business travelers from getting cheap fares."

Airlines that had eliminated restrictions such as Saturday night stay-overs on cheap fares, because business customers hated them, have been putting them back in.

Fewer flights are also likely to reduce the ability of travelers to find a convenient flight where they're going. And airlines may drop service completely to some smaller cities.

Continental said it will announce next week which flights and destinations it will reduce or eliminate. The airline operates hubs in Houston, Newark, N.J., and Cleveland.

Fewer flights will mean fewer planes. Continental has already pulled six planes this year and mothball an additional 67 planes through 2009. By the end of June, its fleet will number 375.

Less than two months ago, Continental was in advanced talks to combine with United to create an airline even bigger than Delta-plus-Northwest. But Continental walked away from the deal in April as oil prices soared and the industry's outlook slumped, and analysts see no other mergers immediately on the horizon.

Airline stocks rose on Continental's announcement, even overcoming another rise in oil prices.

The Amex Airline Index rose 6.3 percent, and shares of Continental gained 70 cents, or 4.8 percent, to $15.20.
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