American Airlines is the latest U.S. legacy carrier to show that with a little merger, a little overseas antitrust immunity, a little capacity discipline and a lot of baggage fees, you can make a killing in this game.
In case you missed it, the airline that now has bragging rights to being the biggest recently turned in the biggest second-quarter profit in its history, a profit so big that it decided to buy back $1 billion worth of its stock, pump $600 million into its pension funds and declare its first cash dividend in 34 years. (For historical reference, it was the year that Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" was topping the pop charts.)
This is the airline that a mere two years ago looked like a dead duck. It was in bankruptcy, was billions of dollars in the red and was locked in a tug-of-war with its employees while US Airways was trying to maneuver it into a merger that it claimed not to want.
United, also in dire straits a few years ago, reported a 68% jump in second-quarter earnings and, coincidentally, is also buying back $1 billion of its stock.
Delta, the first of the Big Three to get its house in order, achieved an operating margin of 15% in the quarter and turned in net income of nearly $900 million, while simultaneously improving its product.
And the list of big earners goes on: Southwest and Spirit set records, Alaska beat analysts' forecasts and Virgin America did well enough to launch an IPO.
We're calling it. We are ready to declare the airlines "fit" and cured of whatever it was that had been ailing them since the last century.
This means we can stop treating the airline industry like the sick puppy of American commerce.
During the airline industry's recent Dark Ages, we said in this space that the airlines were too important to be perpetual basket cases, that the travel industry and American business in general needed a financially stable airline industry.
It looks like we have it at last, and that means it's time for the entire industry to deliver the goods.
Dear airlines: You've turned the corner. You no longer have an excuse to skimp on service and blame your inadequacies on pesky competitors, fuel arbitrageurs, government regulators or the pencil-pushers in your own accounting departments.
You can afford to make the investments that will make flying at least tolerable, such as on-time arrivals, comfortable seats, service with a smile and all that stuff from your corny advertisements of yesteryear. (Oh, yes, you know the ones. They're on YouTube.)
C'mon, airlines. Show us what you can do.