RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's always been tough to make money in the airline industry. And this year, the losses are expected to be huge, approaching $5 billion. Blame the weak economy, which means fewer travelers and less air freight, although there are some bright spots for the flying public.
In the first part of our week-long series Troubled Skies, NPR's Ted Robbins looks at the state of the airline industry.
TED ROBBINS: Let's say you couldn't afford to drive your car. Money's tight. You'd probably park it in the driveway or on the street. Now let's say you're an airline, and you want to park a 747. You're not going to leave it at the gate in an airport. You're going to fly it and leave it in the middle of the desert.
Mr. STEVE COFFARO (Vice President, Evergreen Maintenance Center): Here we stand below a 747-300 X-Qantas Airways passenger aircraft. It's currently in our storage facility.
ROBBINS: Steve Coffaro is vice president of the Evergreen Maintenance Center in Marana, Arizona, north of Tucson. The place is so big, 1,600 acres, we have to drive around in a van to see it. The storage facility is here because there's lots of land and because the dry weather makes it easier to preserve the planes. Last year when fuel prices were $140 a barrel, domestic airlines began parking more aircraft here. Now, even though fuel prices are down, there's a worldwide recession, so international carriers are grounding planes.
Mr. COFFARO: We just have received 14 MD-80 aircraft from various operators from South and Central America. There's been reports up to 100 of these particular type aircrafts have been parked throughout the United States, including here in Marana.
ROBBINS: Old DC-9s and 737s, newer 747s and 757s, many will fly again when times improve. Some will be sold for parts and scrap metal. Around 200 planes are sitting here, wrapped in Mylar and plastic. Steve Coffaro expects another 30 to 40 soon. More planes are here now than at any time since 9/11. The reason is pretty simple: Air travel is down, with the number of passengers dropping 12 percent from last year. The money being spent on plane tickets is down 19 percent. And it costs a lot to fly a plane, especially a wide body like the 747.
Mr. COFFARO: Operating the aircraft with fuel and everything else that goes with it, had an average of $5 to $8 million per aircraft per year. Keeping the aircraft down for $50,000 a year gets the best bang for the buck.
ROBBINS: More planes on the ground, of course, means fewer employees. Last year, U.S. carriers announced 28,000 job cuts. It also means fewer flights for a medium-sized airport like Tucson. The choices have really narrowed. Richard Gruentzel is the airport's chief financial officer.
Mr. RICHARD GRUENTZEL (Chief Financial Officer, Tucson Airport): We've gone from, I think, about 26 or 27 nonstop destinations to, I believe, 15.
ROBBINS: Passengers can still get most places with one stop. But when you get onboard a plane these days, you're likely to hear what I did on a Southwest flight from Las Vegas to Tucson.
Unidentified Woman: If you're just coming on board, if you could find a spot for your bags. Also, folks, we are going to be full, every seat will be taken, so if you have something…
Mr. JOHN PINCAVAGE (Aviation Analyst): The business of an airline is to put fannies in seats. And once that airplane takes off and leaves, you've lost the opportunity to ever do that.
ROBBINS: In other words, says longtime aviation analyst John Pincavage, it's better to make a little money than none at all. Airlines are offering low fares right now largely because of one saving grace: Fuel prices are a third of what they were last summer. It's good news for travelers, and John Pincavage thinks it will stay that way for a while.
Mr. PINCAVAGE: Passengers and travelers, I think, are going to be in for some decent times.
ROBBINS: There's another upside for travels, one you wouldn't expect with full planes. The latest data released by the Department of Transportation shows fewer late and canceled flights. And despite recently added charges for things like checked luggage, fewer complaints.
The Tucson airport's Richard Gruentzel.
Mr. GRUENTZEL: Better baggage handling, less lost bags and all that sort of thing just because there's less volume moving through the system.
ROBBINS: I asked passengers who just landed in Las Vegas about their flying experience. Most travelers had no real complaints. Jessie Festa and Alex Sammit were on spring break from New York.
Ms. JESSIE FESTA: The flight and getting through security and everything, it was really like - it was easy, I thought. I thought it went really smoothly.
Ms. ALEX SAMMIT: Yeah, I was expecting worse. We went through in like, 10 minutes.
ROBBINS: That could change if more people fly during the summer, as they typically do. If airlines lay off more workers, if fuel prices go up, or if the recession lasts beyond the end of the year, that would probably cause airlines to park even more planes in the Arizona desert.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
MONTAGNE: We'd like to know how you think flying could be better. Submit your suggestions for an airline passenger's bill of rights to our Web site, npr.org.