The state of the airlines, post 9/11

| Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 5:05 p.m.

Michael Miller is vice president of strategy for the American Aviation Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In advance of the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Tuesday, Miller spoke to the Trib regarding how well the aviation industry has rebounded since 9/11.

Q: From strictly a business standpoint, would it be accurate to state that 9/11 was the darkest day in the history of the American aviation industry?

A: It was the darkest day, bar none. Other events such as outbreaks of SARS (a viral respiratory illness) to fuel-price spikes have been damaging. They have forced airlines to react, but they haven't been catastrophic. No event matches 9/11, where 25 percent of the marketplace disappeared overnight. That was unprecedented.

Q: Has the industry pretty much recovered from the damage it incurred?

A: Well, the airline industry has changed drastically since 9/11. Part of that has involved a recovery from the terror threat and the more difficult security experience that we now have in airports. But the other part is the industry's transition to an unbundled product, and by that I mean there are more choices when you travel — the choice to pay for a checked bag, get an upgraded seat, get to board first. That's the biggest change since 9/11. Some of that was necessitated by 9/11; the rest was necessitated by much higher fuel prices.

Q: Did 9/11 provide a wake-up call for airlines in terms of in-flight security?

A: There have been upgrades (even though) flight crews have always been trained to handle events onboard and the federal air marshal program existed for years (before 9/11). But the biggest issue on 9/11 was not that there were people onboard who were troublesome and wanted to cause problems, but that they had weapons with them. So the biggest change in terms of security has happened on the airport side rather than on the airplane side to prevent weapons from being brought aboard in the first place.

Q: What's the lasting legacy of 9/11 on the industry?

A: The biggest change in (air) travel hasn't been on the airline side but on the airport side. The biggest legacy has been the creation of the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and (passengers) having to go through a gauntlet of security measures. Airports also are offering more food choices because they know airlines aren't providing as much food, (but) the in-flight experience is still basically the same. You have the same airplanes with the same seats, the same crews flying for the most part to the same destinations.

Q: What strategies do you see the industry pursuing as it moves forward?

A: There is going to be more personalization by the carriers, meaning more online choices, more choices at the airport and on the airplane, choices that will allow people to customize their travel experience more than they already do.

Q: So you'd say the industry today is as healthy as it was before 9/11?

A: The airline industry tracks with the economy. The economy was humming along pre-9/11, and it still hasn't recovered totally. With a strong economy, the industry (can realize) its full potential. I really think we're about 90 percent of the way there now.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or

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