Funny You Should Ask: Hard to believe airlines aren't making money

At least travelers won't have worry about a flight attendants strike against United Airlines this holiday season.

A 1975 strike created high anxiety for holiday travelers booked on United flights, including this writer, who learned his biggest lesson in assertiveness to that point in a crowded airport terminal.

I went to the head of the line at another airline's counter and demanded the agent come to a dangling pay phone so someone else with the same airline could tell him I had a seat.

Media reports have cited assertiveness by United's unions among its myriad woes.

When United filed for bankruptcy Monday, court records revealed the airline has been losing more than $20 million a day, according to The Associated Press.

A federal judge allowed United to use an emergency loan so it can keep flying while its executives decide how many employees and routes can be cut and planes sold for the airline to become a viable again.

A strike this holiday would seem rather moot.

I've never begrudged a good salary to the person in charge of keeping the airliner 30,000 feet up until it's time to land it.

Nor have I for flight attendants in their ever-thankless roles of glorified wait persons (even if the airlines no longer serve food.).

During a full United flight almost 20 summers ago, one attendant remained particularly cool amid a near-revolt over a malfunctioning air conditioning system, while a fellow crew member worried that someone would smoke in the lavatory and throw the butt in the holding tank, ending the flight somewhere over the Midwest.

When I saw the attendant on another flight some months later, I thanked her, and got a smile in return.

The Friendly Skies.

The motto long ago was imprinted upon our national consciousness, when United was as close to being a flagship carrier, like Air France, El Al or Japan Air Lines, as an airline could get without there being such a thing for this country.

And United wasn't yet flying overseas.

Then, airlines simply sold service – the federal government decided where they could fly and how much they could charge until regulation in 1978.

Magazine ads show stewardesses serving coffee and three-course meals to relaxing, smiling businessmen.

As subtle as the "Friendly Skies" message was ubiquitous, United became the unofficial airline of business travelers who, thanks to corporate expense accounts, were about the only people who could afford to fly.

As the airline profits began diving even before the terrorist attacks, the San Francisco Chronicle among others cited United's stubborn reliance upon business travel - an economic perversity because last-minute, full-fare business travelers have become fewer and fewer among the rest of us holding advance-purchase discount tickets.

Since deregulation, the race has been on to see which airline could sell the most discount tickets, because the only way to increase revenue was to increase market share.

United went about it in a big way when it bought Pan Am's routes across the Pacific and, more recently, when it tried – and failed – to buy US Airways.

The economics of the airlines' problems seem simple: The cost of airplanes isn't going down; nor are the fuel and labor costs; but the number of people paying full price for a seat has.

Ever the pundit and amateur economist, I explain this my wife, who simply shakes her head - and she has a point, which is that I miss the point; and maybe airline executives do, too:

Someone who has endured five suffocating, cramped hours aboard an airliner, now matter how discounted the fare, cannot believe the airlines are not making money.

Some fliers endure the journey better than others; others simply put up with the discomfort as part of getting from one place to another quickly.

But then, in a business that can make money only when people are in the air, going 2,500 miles in only five hours might be the only luxury for sale.