Airlines face perfect storm

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U.S. airlines are facing a pivotal moment as higher fuel prices combine with government policy proposals that threaten to undermine the industry’s profitability after years of struggle.

The rising fuel costs are forcing executives to consider raising fares to compensate, a move that may spark consumer backlash, even as Congress debates restrictions to extra fees for services such as checking baggage. Casting a shadow over both is the challenge of navigating divides within the industry and the traveling public over President Trump’s controversial policies, from charging heavy tariffs on imported products to separating parents and children at the southern U.S. border.

Several carriers rapidly distanced themselves from the separations, urging the government not to use their services for related activities.

“We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it,” Forth Worth, Texas-based American Airlines said in a statement. The Department of Homeland Security called the decision unfortunate and lambasted the companies for refusing to protect the traveling public and help the government.

The administration’s import duties, meanwhile, won support from Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian, despite opposition from the broader business community and even the typically GOP-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve been victimized by unfair trade practices,” Bastian said at a recent event at the National Press Club. “With respect to the administration’s policy of giving U.S. workers the best chance at success to create that level playing field, we are 100 percent in agreement.”

Bastian’s Atlanta-based carrier is among those working to mitigate the effect of what the International Air Transport Association said was a 51 percent increase in jet-fuel prices, which reached $95.50 per barrel at the start of July.

“We have seen early success in addressing the fuel cost increase and offset two-thirds of the impact in the June quarter,” Bastian said in a statement this month. “With strong revenue momentum, an improving cost trajectory” and by trimming less-lucrative seating capacity from the fall schedule, “we have positioned Delta to return to margin expansion by year end,” he said.

While the industry has been largely free of price controls since 1978, the fare increases that higher fuel prices are likely to cause raises the risk of government scrutiny as travelers rebel. That would compound the challenge from restrictions on a fee-based price model increasingly popular in the industry in recent years.

The rise of low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines forced larger airlines like Delta and American to begin offering cheaper seats and charging extra fees for upgrading them or checking baggage. Some lawmakers are seeking to insert in a Federal Aviation Administration-funding measure a provision to cap the charges, while the industry says they’re necessary to keep flying affordable for a wide range of passengers.

“It is one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing in Washington right now, as it threatens to roll back 40 years of progress, innovation and affordability for consumers,” Sean Kennedy, senior vice president of global government affairs for Airlines for America, said in a recent interview. “It would completely upend and upset the work that’s allowed us to finally be sustainably profitable.”

Companies fear that further intrusion from the federal government may nudge the industry closer to the days when all prices were heavily regulated. The Trump administration, which has touted its accomplishments in reducing regulation it deems unnecessary, appears to agree.

The Department of Transportation earlier this year urged the Senate to address that provision as it crafts its counterpart bill to the House-passed measure to reauthorize funding for the FAA.

“Simply put, this provision marks a return to the pre-1978 era when the federal Civil Aeronautics Board controlled domestic airline fares and other rates charged to the public,” James Owens, the transportation department’s deputy general counsel, wrote in a letter to Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.

Current FAA funding expires at the end of September. Thune and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the commerce panel, are working to negotiate an agreement to bring the reauthorization bill to the chamber floor, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

Despite the challenges, carriers have won some significant victories under the Trump administration. Most notable was a deal the State Department reached with United Arab Emirates to require Gulf carriers to publish annual financial statements. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and others have long charged that Etihad Airways and others are unfairly subsidized by the UAE.

Original Found on: WashingtonExaminer.Com

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