Business Travel: Airline mergers will make flights tougher for passengers

Hold onto your wallet, brace yourself for confusion and sour faces while boarding and get used to tighter seating in smaller planes on longer trips. Airline mergers are in the air. In fact, by the time you read this, corporate marriage talks between Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines may be close to an actual wedding, but don?t expect a festive reception. Even if the two airlines? 11,000 unionized pilots can agree on a new joint contract, there will be no joy on the ground or in the air. Those delicate discussions are always fraught with squabbles over seniority, pay and time off.
A marriage between the two would create the world?s largest airline, valued at $17.7 billion. Meanwhile, Continental Airlines and United Airlines have been talking merger. American Airlines and Continental, reportedly, have also been discussing a consolidation, but several analysts say that?s more rumor than reality. All of the above could or would be great news for investors in the airlines who?ve taken a beating in recent years. But for those of us who invest only in tickets or are invested in their frequent-flier programs, airline mergers are misery. Fusing two companies, two work forces, two ?cultures,? two work rules, two or more pay levels, seniorities ? the list goes on ? is treacherous. Just ask the employees and the passengers who work for or fly with US Airways, which was taken over by America West several years ago. The airline is like two countries that share a common border and despise each other. USAir ?East,? as the original USAir employees call themselves today, tell me there never will be an harmonious blending of the two carriers.

Business travelers are hardly thrilled by the shrinking number of major U.S. airlines and see something sinister afoot. ?There?s already fewer routes to choose from and this is another way to reduce routes, raise prices, [offer] less seats to choose from, less frequent-flier reward seats and less flexible schedules,? says Leigh Anne Varney, president of Varney Business Communication, a San Francisco technology communications consultancy.

Varney has been a member of United?s Mileage Plus frequent-flier program for 21 years and the miles dictated her schedule.

Airline consultants are not as flummoxed by the consolidation. ?This (Northwest and Delta) will be the anti-merger,? says Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm. ?Mergers usually mean putting two things together and having less than the sum of their parts. This merger may put two airlines together to get bigger, stronger, network and more consumer oriented.?

I can hardly see Northwest becoming more gracious in their passenger and employee treatment. But as Boyd points out, Delta and Northwest have had a code share and marketing alliance for nearly four years and are not strangers.

In the meantime, get ready to fly longer distances in smaller planes with the Delta-Northwest hookup. Both airlines are expanding internationally and their bigger jets will be shifted to overseas routes, a trend that?s hardly new among U.S. airlines.

We haven?t seen a coast-to-coast flight in a tiny, cramped 39-passenger regional jet from the major airlines
yet, but if consolidation continues, get ready for it.???

Religious Tourism

According to the World Religious Travel Association, the fast-growing religious travel, tourism and hospitality market comprises 12 ?vacation? segments: pilgrimages; missionary; cruises; leisure/getaways; conferences/conventions; destinations/attractions; retreats/guesthouses; Christian camps; adventure/active; volunteer vacations; student/youth; and family/intergenerational. The association will host the industry?s first international trade show and educational conference from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 in Orlando, Fla. Here?s are some of the statistics from its Web site,

? Value of the global religious travel, tourism and hospitality market: $18 billion.
? Value of North America?s share of the market: $10 billion.?
? Faith-based travelers worldwide: 300 million.
? U.S. faith-based travelers: 70 million.
? Overseas faith-based trips taken by Americans in 2004:? 600,000+.? Percent of all U.S. overseas travel that year: 2.2.?
? Age groups? percent share of this market: 18-34 ? 33 1/3 percent; 35-54 ? 33 1/3 percent; 55+ ? 33 1/3 percent.
? U.S. churches and religious organizations that host travel programs: 50,000, up roughly 20 percent over the past five years.
? Attendees at U.S. religions conventions and meetings in 2006:? 14.7 million.
? U.S. faith-based cruise charters operating in 2007: 12+.
? People carried on each faith-based cruise in 2007: 2,000 to 3,000.
? U.S. participants in short-term missionary travel in 2007: 1.6 million, up from about 250,000 in 1979.