The global economic melt-down that struck the world economy in 2008 has affected many businesses, the airlines included.

Last year started well for the industry as fuel prices dropped from their record highs of 2007; prosperity and good times were coming. Then the economy collapsed.

Many people stopped traveling for business, many stopped traveling for leisure. The airlines responded to the drop in demand by grounding aircraft, reducing service to many cities, eliminating it completely to others.

It’s one year later and while things are not yet good, they certainly are better than they were a year ago. But the business travelers who purchase those very profitable first class, business, or full fare coach tickets have not returned in the numbers they once had. Many of them are out of work. For example, Bear Stearns went bankrupt and closed, so their executives are not flying. Lehman Brothers was purchased by JP Morgan Chase, but had to lay off almost half of its staff, so they are not filling as many seats as they once did. And many companies have found that it is cheaper to hold a teleconference than to fly an executive cross-country.

The Dow Jones Newswire, discussing American Airlines, reported on Oct. 21 “Gerard Arpey, chairman and CEO of parent AMR Corp. (AMR), was less bullish than some rival executives about any upturn in business travel, forecasting in a letter to employees only “tepid” economic growth ‘well into 2010′.”

I decided to take a highly unscientific survey to see if the business traveler was back. As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife and I are going to vacation in Nassau in two-and-a-half weeks. I used my AAdvantage miles to purchase first class tickets, and wondered if the FC cabin would be crowded.

I looked at AA.com to see how many FC seats were available on our flights. We fly from Austin to Dallas on an early-morning MD-80; there are 16 seats in FC. As of today, 14 of those are available. My wife and I have the only FC reservations and since I used miles, we are not producing any revenue for AA. So, 12.5% full in FC on that flight.

We’ll fly from DFW to Miami on a 767-300, which has 30 seats in FC. As of today, 10 other people will join us, there are 18 empty seats. That’s 40% full.

We’ll fly American Eagle between Miami and Nassau. The ATR-72 has a one-class cabin with 64 seats. Our flight to Nassau is pretty full, only 12 seats are available. Our flight back to Miami has only 23 passengers booked.

We’ll fly from Miami to Dallas on a 737 with 16 seats in FC. This flight is doing well, only 2 seats are available (88% full). On our final flight, an evening MD-80 from DFW to AUS, 13 of the 16 seats are available, 19% full.

I wondered if these flights were doing any better in coach; this is what I found.

AUS-DFW: 124 seats, 51 booked, 41% full
DFW-MIA: 195 seats, 126 booked, 65% full
MIA-DFW: 132 seats, 82 booked, 62% full
DFW-AUS: 124 seats, 79 booked. 64% full

So, they are certainly doing better in coach than in First.

As we get closer to departure date, the first class section will become more full, but I wonder how much revenue AA will get. Will our fellow passengers have purchased those tickets, or will be they be non-revenue like me and my wife?

While the majority of passengers fly in coach, a huge amount of the airlines’ revenue comes from those business travelers sitting in the front of the plane. For the sake of the airlines, I hope they will return, and do it soon.