S Airways declares Chapter 11. American cuts capacity and eliminates 7,000 jobs. United's stock drops to below $3 a share, with many analysts predicting bankruptcy by year's end.

Eleven months after Sept. 11, Northwest, Continental and Delta continue to search in vain for the tourniquet that will stem their losses.

In contrast, low-cost airlines Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran all reported second-quarter profits (in the cases of Southwest and AirTran, significantly lower profits, but profits nonetheless).

Many observers, myself included, have criticized the major airlines for failing to fix their broken pricing structures, correct operational inefficiencies or significantly differentiate themselves from competitors in the minds of consumers, and have pointed to specific actions their lower-cost competitors have taken that seem to give them an advantage.

The majors, of course, also have noticed what the low-cost airlines are doing. In fact, Delta reported that it is reviewing proposals from a consultant it hired in order to compete more effectively against these airlines.

All that said, I hope the swirl of positive hype around the low-cost airlines doesn't cloud the major airlines' thinking as they evaluate what further changes they may want to institute.

Overall, there are plenty of benefits for those who fly the Big Five over their low-cost rivals. And while I'm a frequent critic of the major airlines' operations and policies, I'm going to, this week, assume the role of their defender.

What would the world be like if the low-cost airlines' tactics and strategies were adopted by all airlines? It can't happen, of course, because much of the positioning of budget airlines requires that they be an "alternative" to an existing structure (i.e., if all airlines flew out of second-tier airports, second-tier airports would then become major airports, with all their attendant problems).

Still, the majors are in trouble, and in their time of need, let us take a moment to count the blessings that they bestow upon travelers:

• Interline agreements. Low-cost carriers are, for the most part, lone rangers, operating without many cooperative agreements with other carriers. This has several repercussions for travelers. If a flight is canceled or delayed, a traveler has limited (or in the case of Southwest, no) options for being put on another carrier. And because the low-cost airlines often operate out of second-tier airports, even when they do have agreements with other carriers, the number of carriers travelers can contact is limited. Which brings us to ...

• Use of major airports. Sometimes you really want to fly from San Francisco to Miami, and not from Oakland to Fort Lauderdale. You'd rather get on a plane in Los Angeles and get off in Washington rather than boarding in Long Beach and deplaning in Baltimore. There's the time factor, and you might prefer taking a taxi to an appointment rather than renting a car. Simply put, there often are fewer hassles when you fly a major carrier. And if you want to use a low-cost airline as the first leg to connect to an international flight, well, maybe you can, and maybe you can't.

• The hub system. Don't laugh. While the disadvantages of hubs are all too familiar, they also have a significant upside for travelers. If a plane has a malfunction, spare parts and trained mechanics are close by. If a plane is taken out of service, there's another ready to take its place. Miss a flight? Just look at the video monitors -- there'll likely be another flight to your destination before too long (or another route to get where you're going.) Many smaller markets receive service from the majors, thanks to the hubs. And people who live in a hub city may be subjected to high pricing on one hand, but they have a wide selection of direct flights on the other.

• Scheduling. On select, very popular routes, the low-fare airlines may offer frequent service, but as a rule, they don't. Miss a connection or flight, and you may have a very long wait indeed (exacerbated by the lack of interline agreements).

• Meaningful extras for the most frequent flyers. Boarding a plane early, upgrades to first class, shorter check-in and security lines, the waiving of certain fees -- these make a big difference to road warriors. If the field were suddenly leveled and none of these existed, the airline that introduced them would be seen as caring for their best customers and gain a tremendous advantage.

All the blessings above add up to convenience over inconvenience. Who, in the long run, wouldn't prefer convenience over inconvenience? Well, in the short run, apparently a lot of people are willing to put up with inconvenience because the cost differential is often so great between the low-costs and the majors. Given the convenience advantages, I suspect the majors don't need to match the prices of the upstarts -- but they do need to narrow the gap.

The worst-case outcome for the majors is that the low-cost carriers will come to be regarded, essentially, as mass transit, and the other airlines as the domain of the wealthier traveler who is willing to pay extra for "perks." If that proves to be the case, it is the airlines we now call majors that will become niche players.

And as a very frequent flyer addicted to convenience, I hope that proves not to be the case.


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