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Yeager officials see positive in merger

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- All airline mergers are not created equal.

When Southwest Airlines bought AirTran Airways in 2011, the merger cost Yeager Airport a significant amount of money, said Rick Atkinson, the airport's director.

Before the merger, more than 35,000 passengers a year flew on AirTran's planes from Charleston to Orlando, Atkinson said. But Charleston was one of the first cities that lost AirTran service after the Southwest merger.

"The Southwest Air Tran merger is the only merger that has hurt us," Atkinson said. "We made money for them and [Southwest] said 'that's not how we operate our airline, we have to serve larger places.' "

Other airline mergers, including Delta Air Lines' purchase of Northwest Airlines in 2008 and United Airlines' acquisition of Continental Airlines in 2010, were "positive" for Yeager, he said.

For that reason, Atkinson said, he welcomes news of the latest merger between American Airlines and US Airways.

American Airlines and US Airways announced the $11 billion merger agreement in February. The company, which will form the world's largest airline, will operate under the American Airlines name and will be based at American's headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

The merger will be final within the next couple of years, Atkinson said, if it receives approval from the U.S. Justice Department antitrust regulators and US Airways shareholders.

While some big-city air routes have already seen price increases of 40 and 50 percent as a result of the merger, smaller airports, including Yeager, shouldn't expect to see such high prices, Atkinson said.

Brian Belcher, Yeager's marketing director, said the Charleston airport's fares will "be on par with any airport" that has similar competition and size.

When the merger is completed, the nation will have three major airlines of similar size -- American, United and Delta -- which is good for Yeager customers, Belcher said.

If just one of the three nearly equal-in-size carriers occupied Yeager, customers could anticipate prices going up, but because the small airport flies all three, competition is about even, he said.

"Higher prices might be true in a market where one of those carriers was a dominant one, but we have such competition here that we're going to be shielded from that," Belcher said.

"But I can't say that won't happen nationally," he added. "Competition is good for the consumer."

Competition among the three major airlines will entice them to upgrade in-flight amenities, such as better seats and wireless Internet options, Belcher said.

More than 600 new planes that American has ordered will have "main cabin extra" seating with up to 6 inches of additional leg room, according to a website for the merged airlines.

The website also promises in-flight Wi-Fi for connectivity around the world.

Atkinson said additional first-class seating could happen with the type of aircraft that will become available with the merger.

Delta is the only airline at Yeager that offers first-class service to passengers. The airline upgraded its Charleston-Atlanta service with 120-passenger DC-9 planes with first-class sections in March.

Atkinson said first-class seating in the new American planes "may be an option," but it takes a couple of years for pilots' licenses to be combined with the new system so that more planes are available.

American has already added new routes at Yeager.

Beginning June 12, the airline will offer nonstop jet service between Charleston's airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The new flights will give the Boy Scouts of America -- which is headquartered in Irving, near the Texas airport -- better access to West Virginia. The Summit Bechtel Family National Scouts Reserve in Fayette County will host thousands of Scouts, their families and visitors each year.

Atkinson said there are other route alternatives that could be added over time because of the merger.

American has strong business at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York while US Airways is dominant at the Philadelphia International Airport, Atkinson said.

How to get to those places using miles from the new airline's loyalty program is still up in the air.

Atkinson said he doesn't know the full details of what will come of the combined American Airlines AAdvantage program and US Airways Divided Miles.

The website for the merged airlines simply says members can expect "even more opportunities to earn and redeem miles from an expanded global network of routes and partnerships."

Atkinson said frequent-flier miles are typically combined one-for-one during mergers. If a flier had 100,000 points on US Airways, for example, that would convert to 100,000 American Airline miles, he said.

"They typically take most of the good points from both programs," Atkinson said. "Loyalty programs are very important [to airlines]."

On one flight, American had 50 percent of the market on a nonstop flight, but US Airways, which had a layover, had about 38 percent of travelers because of the miles extras they offered, he said.

"People enjoy the perks of having the status of going first, checking bags free and getting miles," Atkinson said.

People also appreciate an easily accessible airport.

Fortunately for the modestly sized Yeager, American and US Airways are already located next to each other.

When Atkinson visited the Denver International Airport last week, he said he wondered how the two airlines, which are located at different terminals, would move gates and counters to accommodate the merger.

Yeager doesn't have to deal with that, he said.

"It won't be a facilities issue for us," Atkinson said. "For the larger airports with larger, separate concourses, those become facility questions and large costs for the airlines because they have to run a new network backbone to support their gate and check-in operations."

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 


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