The Airlines Get a Little Cranky

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Interesting week in the airline business. On Thursday a cranky three-year-old got his entire family chucked off an Alaska Airlines flight for refusing to put away his iPad, buckle his seatbelt and behave. Who does that kid think he is, Alec Baldwin?

Then, on Friday, it was an entire airline that got its nose out of joint. United Continental Holdings informed the city of Houston that 1,300 people would be thrown out of their jobs at George Bush Intercontinental Airport because the city council granted permission to Southwest to run international flights out of Hobby Airport, the closer-to-town terminal.

If there are two things airlines won’t tolerate, it’s unruly passengers and unruly competition.

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The parents of the three-year-old, Daniel Yanchuk, say the airline overreacted. I’m not so sure, since I’ve never heard of this happening before. Airlines are amazingly tolerant of kids, always willing to board them in mid-to-full tantrum. Although—admit it—how many times do you wish that the little screamer being seated next to you had gotten kicked off? Even yours. Even in midflight. If word of this leaks out among the three-year old set—and you know how adept they are on those iPads—there will be demands for toys and candy and other bribes at the airport. It’s going to be, “Give up the goodies, Dad, or I’m going ballistic and you’re going nowhere.”

In Houston, United pulled a page out of the American Airlines playbook. Years ago, American tried desperately to keep Southwest from starting up out of Love Field near Dallas, even getting legislation passed that barred Southwest from interstate flights. Then, as now, the majors were terrified of an outfit that offered consistently good service at consistently low prices. Southwest obviously won that battle (it’s stock ticker symbol: LUV), but the war goes on.

United had warned the Houston city council that allowing Southwest to operate international flights from Hobby would drain traffic from Bush, so it would have to cut flights and jobs in response. The city council voted for competition anyway, reasoning perhaps that expanding the number of available flights might attract more passengers to both places, particularly if prices drop. This has been Southwest’s MO since it started in 1971. It is deregulation’s poster child airline.

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We won’t know until 2015 if United is correct in its assessment about traffic at Hobby because Southwest’s international Hobby flights won’t start until then. But United’s passengers and employees at Bush will feel the pain this year: United plans to start cutting flights and jobs when its fall schedule kicks in. Should you get on one of those less frequent flights (which will cost more, logic tells you) there’s some good news. If you’re flying in the front of the plane, the food is being upgraded. According to United, “Customers on long-haul international flights traveling in United Global First and United BusinessFirst can choose from high-quality, restaurant-style entrees, including selections of beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian-style pastas.” Presumably, there will still be enough staff aboard to serve them. Enjoy your meal, and don’t bring your crabby three-year-old.