It’s ALIVE! Race to create world’s worst airline heats up

Just when air travelers thought things couldn’t get any worse, they have. The competition to create the world’s worst airline is heating up, and the losers have already been decided. We are the losers.

The just-announced merger of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines will create the world’s worst air carrier when it comes to customer service, as I correctly observed several weeks ago. Not to be outdone, US Airways and United are reportedly in talks to hook up. Improbable as it sounds, their union promises to make the new Delta look like a compassionate, customer-friendly company.

No, really. A merged US Airways-United will probably create a Frankenstein of the skies — a new airline that would take the bottom spot in several key customer service indicators as tracked by the Transportation Department. Those numbers would likely include denied boardings, on-time arrivals and departures and, of course, passenger complaints.

What can you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Fight it.

The usual suspects have already stood up to oppose the mergers. Now it’s your turn. Write to your elected representatives and let them know that allowing four failing airlines to become two is not in your interest. Or theirs.

Another thing. Keep a close eye on how the airlines in question will try to artificially inflate their numbers in advance of a merger. Already, US Airways has come out with an interesting incentive program that promises to reward its executives with big bonuses for average scores on the DOT report card.

I also think it’s disingenuous of travel industry critics like me to point out the obvious shortcomings of the loss-plagued airlines without offering an alternative. If we don’t allow Delta/Northwest and US Airways/United to move forward, what’s plan B?

Well, I’m no airline expert, but from a customer perspective, the best thing to happen would be for one or two of these airlines to fail. No government intervention. Let them go the way of ATA, Skybus, Maxjet and EOS. Let them be replaced with a startup airline that has a real business plan and understands customer service.

It may be the most painful solution, in the short term. But in the long run, it will be the best one.

Airline deathwatch: place your bets, please

Now that Frontier Airlines has filed for bankruptcy protection, it’s time to get serious about a game we bloggers haven’t played since 2002. It’s called airline deathwatch.

I’ve hinted at it in my MSNBC column, as have columnists like Scott McCartney and my blogging colleague Jeanne Leblanc. But now it it’s time for all of you to join in the fun.

Place your bets, please.

United Airlines. Business is down, fares are up. Is the end near? (Odds: 1,500 to 1)

American Airlines. The world’s largest air carrier has been paralyzed by inspection-related cancellations this week, including more than 500 flights today. Compensating passengers will cost it millions. Is it enough to push it into bankruptcy? (Odds: 1,000 to 1)

AirTran. Its top executive is overpaid, it recently added surcharges for a second checked bag, and its core customers — budget travelers — are becoming even more penny-pinching. Can high ratings save it? (Odds: 50 to 1)

Alitalia. Deal to rescue ailing Italian carrier fell apart last week. Is the end near? (Odds: 6 to 1)

Sun Country. This struggling airline replaced its CEO, furloughed 30 percent of its pilots and is facing an embezzlement scandal. (Odds: 2 to 1)

What do you think? Am I missing any other candidates? Spirit Airlines? Delta Air Lines? Northwest Airlines?

Step right up.