The volume of air service in the USA is gradually catching up to pre-September 11 levels. The uneven service recovery reflects a fast-changing airline industry where the big traditional airlines are refashioning operations to get more competitive and where newer discount airlines are attracting a growing share of the nation's air travelers. But discounters still face many of the same financial pressures as the majors, such as high fuel costs and rabid fare competition.
As a group, discount carriers remain the most solid performers in the battered airline sector. Big network airlines are posting the bulk of what the Air Transport Association estimates will be $4 billion in losses. Meanwhile, some of the biggest discounters - Southwest, America West, JetBlue and AirTran - are profitable and appear solid.
Because of the industry shift to more small regional jets, the decline in the number of airline seats over the four years has been deeper than the decline in the number of flights departing U.S. airports.
As discount carriers gain their market share, capacity is coming back in different forms.Many states' volume of air service is tied to a giant hub airport dominated by a single airline. But some of the big traditional USA airlines have scaled back hubs to save money or try a new strategy, scrambling the traditional service patterns.
The past four years have seen traditional carriers such as Northwest and Delta shift many large-jet flights to regional USA airlines that mainly fly smaller, 50-seat jets. We see now that the regional carriers are growing like gangbusters. Many states that have watched capacity grow over the past four years have benefited from the rapid expansion of discount carriers.
As competition and costs grow, the annual earnings growth of the low-cost airline segment could be cut by a third or more through the rest of the decade.
As USA airlines expand into international markets in search of profit, travelers are finding an array of new non-stop routes. But not all cities are benefiting equally from the growth in international air travel. For every U.S. airport that has added non-stop flights to foreign destinations in the past five years, about an equal number have lost such flights.
Since last year, the six big traditional USA airlines -- all continuing to post huge losses -- have been aggressively expanding service across borders and overseas, where they face less competition. International service -- that's where the money is.
The U.S. airlines' heightened interest in foreign routes is benefiting travelers by providing more choices. And it's one reason it's easier today than five years ago to fly. Meanwhile, it's gotten harder to fly for example from New York John F. Kennedy to Sao Paulo or St. Louis to Toronto. Overall, airports in the 48 contiguous states average 1,663 non-stops daily.
So as we can see, all American air carriers are trying their best to stay afloat and adjust their services to the fast changing industry demands.