I am not going to predict mergers, bankruptcies, liquidations.
Instead, I am going to suggest something really radical.
To survive, the six big "network" carriers are going to have to evolve into something different. It is sort ofl thile the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous....they were all happy, wallowing around in the tropical sun, eating leaves (or each other). Then a comet or large meteor struck the Yucatan peninsula (bad day to be at Cancun or Merida) and the environment changed. They couldn't adapt, thus they died.
If the big network carriers cannot adapt, they, too, will perish.
The environment has changed. It had changed before 11 Sep, but instead of the gradual and incremental change to the business landscape, 9/11 set off shockwaves much as that meteor (or comet or whatever) did.
Liquidation of a carrier might buy the remaining 5 some time, but it won;t solve their ultimate problem.
The network-hub-and-spoke system is flawed. Fundamentally flawed. It worked well in a regulated environment. It won't work nearly as well in a free market.
I have said it before but it bears repeating: In the future all airlines will be like WN
or they will not be in business.
Passengers want to move from point A to point B. The vast majority of them are not aviation enthusiasts who judge a successful trip by maximizing the number of takeoffs and landings they accumulate. They want to get on a plane, proceed directly to their destination, and go on about their business. They also want to do that at the most reasonable cost.
There is not enough traffic, obviously, for frequent direct jet flights from Lake Charles, LA
to Rochester, NY. So what gives?
There is probably a place for commuter (or feeder) carriers. But the big winners in the new modern world will continue to be point-to-point carriers who can enter medium and large markets with large jet equipment, charge a low enough fare to stimulate demand, and create a supply of seats proportional to the demand.
A lot of folks said the internet would kill business travel, what with the ability to have video teleconferencing and what have you. The internet has changed the industry, but not in that way. Businesses see the need for folks to still meet in person, press the flesh, and conduct commerce of various types in person.
But businesses now use the internet to see just what is out there in terms of airfare. (So do individuals). When you fly somewhere, you are buying transportation---not a fabulous experience to rate right up there with New Year's Eve or whatever is better than that. Once the plane parks at the jetway and the passenger leaves, there is no long-term value derived from having spent $91 for that airplane seat or $700. Either way, you got to your destination. Businesses have come to grips with the reality that, when it comes to airfare, cheaper is better.
Just my $.02. The industry may limp along without radical change for a while longer, especially if one of the so-called big six goes away permanently. But the landscape is not what it used to be. The network carriers are going to have to find different ways to do business if they are to survive.