When I wrote about the future of air travel last weekend and predicted that it would soon fail to meet California's intercity travel needs, I was making an analytical prediction based on a range of long-term factors. Little did I know that intercity air travel is right now facing major strains here in the state. In the comments to that post the "other Robert" pointed me to an article from the LA Times business section last week on United Airlines' growing financial losses.
The article quoted some analysts as saying "there needs to be a minimum 15% across-the-board hike in fares to offset higher fuel costs" and generally focused on the technical details of UAL's $542 million loss. Buried in the article, on page two of the online edition, was this rather stunning item:
UAL also said it would cut capacity by 9% this year, on top of a 5% reduction in the fourth quarter of 2007, and remove as many as 15 more narrow-body aircraft from its operating fleet, for a total of 30 grounded planes.
Heavily traveled "shuttle" markets, such as L.A.-San Francisco and New York-Washington are prime targets for schedule cuts, analysts said.
Truth be told, I didn't expect to see this for a couple of years, but here we are. United is one of the major carriers on the LA-SF shuttle route, along with Southwest. If United has to make cuts on that route, it's going to provide reduced travel options and will make it easier for Southwest to raise their own fares.
More importantly, it raises the fundamental question of whether airlines will be able to serve the needs of Californians who wish to travel between the two halves of our state. As I noted over the weekend, I'm not predicting air travel will vanish anytime soon, and there will be carriers flying the LA-SF shuttle route for many years to come. But if their service options are reduced and their fares rise (and trust me, this is but the beginning of airline fare increases) then California is going to need another method to provide rapid travel between LA and SF.
Numerous critics of HSR point to "cheap Southwest fares" as a reason we don't need HSR. This article ought to suggest that reason is losing what little validity it had, and losing it fast. California cannot afford to watch the airline industry collapse without an alternative plan already under construction. High speed rail is that alternative.