Small airlines handle travel crisis

Saturday, November 24, 2001

DENVER -- A handful of smaller, scrappier airlines are emerging battered but not beaten in the worst downturn in the history of the airline industry.

While the nation's largest airlines posted $2.4 billion in losses and laid off more than 100,000 employees in the third quarter, three small airlines -- AirTran, Frontier and jetBlue -- are adding more routes.

"We're basically just going about our business," said David Neeleman, chief executive of New York-based jetBlue.

Though all airlines have reported steep drops in air traffic, and several small airlines have failed or are teetering near bankruptcy, a few of the independent carriers have managed to absorb the damage caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Frontier, jetBlue and AirTran have distinguished themselves as leaders of the pack. Their simple route plans have made it easier to handle increased security, delays and schedule changes without disrupting their entire networks.

Frontier and jetBlue both reported profits in the third quarter. AirTran reported a loss of $10.6 million, including charges directly related to the Sept. 11 attacks, after 11 straight profitable quarters.

All three airlines are doing well enough to proceed with plans for expansion -- an idea that is far from the minds of those who run the major airlines.

American Airlines' parent company, AMR, recently eliminated about 20,000 jobs at American, TWA and American Eagle, and it posted a $414 million third-quarter loss, the largest in its 75-year history.

At the same time, Frontier rehired 70 of the 440 employees it laid off after the attacks. It also is planning flights to Alexandria, Va., and recently opened a route to Reno, Nev., while other airlines cut flights to that city.

Despite its financial troubles, AirTran, of Orlando, Fla., announced it will fly between Baltimore and Atlanta. The move came after US Airways' low-fare carrier, MetroJet, cut its route between the cities.

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