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VOL. 127 | NO. 63 | Friday, March 30, 2012

Flights of Fortune

US Airways’ new nonstops to D.C. reverse trend of cuts at MEM

By Bill Dries

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The Delta Air Lines Inc. employees were busy with customers near concourse B at Memphis International Airport.

US Airways planes line up at Reagan International Airport in Arlington, Va. The airline will make three daily nonstop flights from Memphis to Reagan. 

(Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The U.S. Navy Band was playing above a nearby stage lined with balloons and waiting for several congressmen as well as the city and county mayors.

But the music and balloons and dignitaries weren’t marking an event or milestone for Delta, the airport’s dominant passenger carrier.

They were for the start of three daily nonstop US Airways Inc. flights between Memphis and Reagan National Airport in Washington.

The US Airways counter is next to the Delta counter and it too was busy.

Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority chairman Arnold Perl told those present that it would be a day they would remember.

“This is the start of building service back in Memphis,” Perl said, referring to recent service cuts by Delta, although he didn’t mention Delta by name.

The growth is the result of a slot swap between US Airways and Delta as US Airways sought to build its presence at Reagan National and Delta sought to build its presence at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. US Airways got Delta slots at Reagan in exchange for Delta getting US Airways slots at LaGuardia.

Now Delta and US Airways each offer nonstop flights between Memphis and Washington, the first time there has ever been such dual service to D.C. in the airport’s history.

“With two carriers on the same route, you’ll see lower fares,” said airport authority president Larry Cox.

He and Perl are putting heavy emphasis on Memphis travelers going to the nation’s capital on business being able to make Washington a day trip instead of having to stay overnight and catch a morning flight back to Memphis.

The other alternative is a later flight to Atlanta. That alternative caused Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to skip a recent photo op with President Barack Obama during a trip to Washington earlier this month.

“It was because I had a choice of sleeping in the airport in Atlanta or getting back home to Memphis,” Wharton said. “I won’t have to worry about that anymore.”

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee vice president Calvin Anderson is another frequent flier to Washington who is happy with the new flights.

“Having it as an option is something that the community needs,” he said. “A lot of times, you can’t conduct your business in one day. The times you can it is greatly convenient to have the ability to go back and forth in a single day.”

Phoenix-based US Airways’ presence at Memphis International, which serves as one of seven Delta U.S. hubs, remains modest even with the three extra nonstops a day. US Airways had six of the 137 major and regional airline scheduled flights in February at Memphis International.

US Airways tried to acquire Atlanta-based Delta in 2006 in a hostile takeover bid that failed. US Airways is now expressing interest in American Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization four months ago.

Doug Parker, CEO of US Airways, told the Wall Street Journal this week that more consolidation of the industry is likely among today’s seven major carriers.

“I don’t know that seven is the right number, but I know 12 is too many,” he said referring to the number before the most recent wave of mergers. “That fragmentation resulted in an irrational business model that had too many airlines chasing the same customers, leading to terrible loss years.”

The mergers have had a direct effect on Memphis International. First, hometown airline Republic Airlines was acquired by Northwest Airlines, which in turn was absorbed into Delta. In each case there were changes, good and bad, for those ending or beginning their journey in Memphis.

Memphis International remains a destination largely for those making connecting flights.

Among the exceptions to the rule, however, is a powerful set of frequent fliers – members of Congress from the region.

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Ark., is one of several congressmen from several surrounding states who know Memphis International well.

“I think anytime you have options and competition, you are going to see service improve. And you are going to see probably more people that are more inclined to fly out of Memphis,” Crawford said as he waited to catch the 10:45 a.m. flight to Washington. “Obviously you have a strong impact on Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri all the way down the Mississippi River. … This is a huge regional transportation hub that you really just can’t understate the importance of.”

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