Packed in like sardines; airlines still lose money

Napoleon canned the first sardines early in the 19th century. (Think, the island of Sardinia, hence the name.) Exactly when the phrase "packed like sardines" became a clich?, however, isn't as clear.

Napoleon canned the first sardines early in the 19th century. (Think, the island of Sardinia, hence the name.) Exactly when the phrase "packed like sardines" became a cliché, however, isn't as clear.

But the phrase was on my mind last week when my husband and I were among the last folks to board a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, just as it had been on my mind when we made the trip the opposite direction the week before. In fact, the phrase comes to mind every time I fly, and it always prompts the same question: As stuffed as the airplanes always seem to be, how can the airlines be losing money?

They are. Well, the traditional carriers are. Budget airlines, such as Southwest are doing just fine (a profit of $313 million last year). In contrast, Northwest posted a first quarter loss of $458 million - a figure about double the loss for the same period a year ago.

Quoted by Reuters, Northwest Chief Executive Doug Steenland said, "Record high fuel prices and increasingly noncompetitive labor costs on the expense side, and excess capacity and competitors' pricing decision on the revenue side negatively affected our performance during the quarter."

Translation: Excuses, excuses.


While Northwest struggles (along with Delta and Continental), US Airways and United Airlines are both in bankruptcy. Actually, the six largest U.S. carriers posted over $9 billion in losses last year. To the beleaguered flying public, that doesn't make sense, especially when compared to the lowly automobile. In cars and trucks, we're more comfortable and we're safer than 25 years ago. However, during that same period of time, the airline industry seems to have been in a holding pattern.

Passengers flying first class may have a different opinion, but most of us herded into "coach," find the notion that comfort is an airline priority to be laughable. Forget the amenities; we're pay-to-go cargo. And except for airport security that has turned boarding area entries into "undressing zones," we aren't sure what has been done that should make us feel safer, either.

Flying is about getting from Point A to Point B in a timely manner. Period. That is our primary goal, and the good news about the airlines is that they have improved their "on-time" record and by and large, they are staffed by nice people.

Still, the journey that is the means to that end seems more and more to be all about endurance. We file down the jetway like a bovine herd in a sale barn chute, climb over one another to get ourselves crammed into seats, and then try to figure out how to keep our thighs and upper arms from pressing against those of seatmates we've never met. (Positive note: Flying is one of the few situations where being five feet, two inches tall is an advantage. But even we short people lack elbow room.)

Few, if any, accommodations are made for elderly or handicapped people. And parents of infants and toddlers have to fend for themselves, especially if a diaper change has to be done during a flight.

Perhaps those of us in the hinterlands are particularly sensitive because our high fares make up for the special deals offered by airlines in big markets where they have to meet the competition. Out here, we're pretty much hostage to any airline willing to serve us. That's why the recent news that Fargo might attract a low-fare airline is good news. No question, paying less might make us willing to put up with more. But here is a cautionary note: Flying won't be more pleasant. In fact, it might get worse.

And here's a dose of reality: If the alternative is not being able to fly, pack us in like the proverbial sardines. Business people can't afford to stay home, and the rest of us don't want to.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail

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