Philly Road Warrior | Airline profits, China routes and some common sense

Between airlines making money, diverting flights, and clamoring for routes to China, not to mention a legendary industry executive making an unusual move, it's been one of the busiest periods in months for us.

And we almost forgot: Common sense prevailed at week's end at the Transportation Security Administration, which relaxed its rules on carrying disposable lighters and breast milk on airplanes. Details about the change - did we mention the United States had been the only country to ban lighters? - are provided at www.tsa.gov.

For 300 passengers and crew on last Monday's US Airways flight from London to Philadelphia, the big story was their unscheduled visit to St. John's, Newfoundland. The flight was diverted because of an ill passenger who then became the focus of a still mysterious "security issue." It took more than seven hours to determine why the passenger had fallen ill and what was in her baggage, and then to deal with the situation. Something suspicious prompted Canadian officials to detonate one of her bags, but US Airways had no additional information about why.

Comments from readers and passengers about the incident show how different people react under such circumstances. Two, including a man who called us while the plane was on the ground in St. John's, said they thought the flight crew had handled the situation as well as could be expected. But another customer said that she and her family had felt like hostages and complained that the crew had not kept customers well-informed.

Late Monday, moments before we learned of the diverted flight, US Airways, American and Delta sent news releases in quick succession to announce they were seeking U.S. government approval to start service to China. Three other carriers, Continental, Northwest and Hawaiian, also have expressed interest in new routes to China. The U.S-China air market already is one of the busiest in the world in which the number of flights is limited by treaty, but the two governments agreed in the spring to allow an increase.

The proposed US Airways service, seven round-trips a week between Philadelphia and Beijing, would not start until March 2009. Watch for heavy lobbying campaigns by the airlines, each of which will try to persuade the public that business and leisure travelers want flights from its hub.

At midweek, four major airlines, American, Continental, Southwest and Delta, reported profits for the second quarter. As you may have noticed, fares have been rising, flights are full, and carriers have fewer employees than they did a few years ago - all good ways to help the airlines make money. US Airways will be reporting its second-quarter results at 1 p.m. Thursday. You can listen to a Webcast of executives speaking to Wall Street analysts in a conference call at www.usairways.com.

For anyone who has followed the vagaries of the airline business as long as we have, our favorite news of the week came from Southwest. CEO Gary Kelly got a four-year contract to head the company, but that was no surprise, given its solid performance since he got the job in 2004.

More interesting was the announcement that cofounder and executive chairman Herb Kelleher, 76, and president Colleen Barrett, 62, would leave their positions as officers and directors in a year but would continue to be full-time employees for an additional five years. Kelleher is widely regarded as one of the best executives to ever lead an airline.

What does it say about the working atmosphere at a company when executives want to relinquish their titles and fat paychecks but still come to the office every day and help out? Do you suppose there's any relationship between employee morale at Southwest and the fact it's had the fewest complaints filed against it with the federal government since records started being kept 20 years ago?

We think there is.


Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.