World Routes celebrates two decades of change

World Routes touched down in Chicago over the weekend for its 20th anniversary show; with a look back at how much the industry has changed since that first meeting in Cannes 14 September 1995 where 60 people were in attendance.

This week, some 3,000 aviation professionals have come together to talk about routes, service, competition, financing, infrastructure, regulation and a wide variety of issues shared by both airlines and airports.

The get together also creates a dating service of sorts, where airports can make their pitch for airlines to bring service to their corner of the market.

Opening day remarks included presentations by executives from major carriers, who shared traits of commonality as well as competition.

“We struggled post 9/11,” admitted United VP James Compton, ticking off a list of challenges the airline faced, from competition from low-fare airlines, bankruptcy, a recession, high fuel prices and a frozen credit market. But he believes that United has turned the corner. “I’m encouraged now more than ever about the future of United.”

The airline is focusing now on improving the customer experience, by introducing technology that will give the passenger more control over the journey from start to finish. “Customers want control from booking travel to checking in at a kiosk.”

Over the coming year, the carrier plans to consolidate the number of regional partners in each in an effort to simplify operations and to improve onboard service, he noted.

Ever mindful of the robust completion in the industry, Compton observed, “Physical assets can be competed away. Loyalty is much harder to compete away.”

While United has struggled over the past decade, Etihad Airways stormed into the international market a decade ago and has already made its mark with steady growth and attention to passenger service. Last year, Etihad carried some 12 million passengers.

“It’s a great time to be an airline,” said Kevin Knight, Chief Strategy and Planning Officer, noting Etihad’s “extraordinary growth and diversification.”

The carrier operates a fleet of 100 aircraft but has invested heavily in other international carriers in order to expand its network through partnerships, even investing in its own regional brand in Europe. It has orders and options for another 300 aircraft.

Though the carrier is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, it still must develop into a profitable, sustainable airline that returns a profit to shareholders, Knight said.

American Airlines president Scott Kirby relayed experiences similar to those of United, having gone through bankruptcy and a merger with US Airways. Kirby believes it has overcome some of the most difficult tasks, which served to strength the management team.

“Less than three years ago, American files for bankruptcy – the last major carrier to file,” Kirby said. “We focused on how to make the airline better.”

The merger with US Airways strengthened the carriers overall network by providing east to west coast service. “US Airways couldn’t get them to the west coast,” he recalled. “American had some issues – it couldn’t get them up and down the east coast. It was a route network thing of trying to get together. We needed to compete with Delta and United.”

Sandra Arnoult, US correspondent, Low-Fare & Regional Airlines/
Chicago, IL, USA

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