U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter yesterday delivered a stern public scolding to US Airways' top executive after a heated meeting in his Washington office, saying the airline had broken repeated commitments to the Pittsburgh area with huge cutbacks and layoffs.
"It was not a satisfactory meeting," a grim Mr. Specter told reporters as he stood afterward alongside US Airways Chief Executive Doug Parker. "There are grave concerns from the Pennsylvania delegation about what US Airways has done in Pittsburgh."
Sen. Bob Casey and nine of the state's House members joined Mr. Specter, a five-term Republican, for the closed-door session. Each took turns berating Mr. Parker and other airline officials for planning a new round of cuts in the region, including the elimination of 450 local jobs and the shifting of 500 local pilots and flight attendants to new locations.
"This was the most unbelievable meeting I've ever sat through," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. "Half of what was said couldn't be printed in a newspaper."
By the beginning of next year, US Airways will have 68 daily flights and 1,800 local employees, down from highs of 542 flights and 11,995 people in September 2001.
The latest announcement came last month, just weeks after Mr. Parker told union officials that US Airways was not planning any additional reductions in the region.
Mr. Parker, who joined US Airways after the company's 2005 merger with America West Airlines of Tempe, Ariz., said he came to the nation's capital to explain his business perspective to Pennsylvania lawmakers. He cited the high cost of fuel and the loss of $40 million in revenue in Pittsburgh over the past year.
"We're deeply committed to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania," he said. "We still are the largest airline in Pittsburgh. We generate more revenues in the state of Pennsylvania than we do in any other state. We've worked very hard to be good corporate citizens, to be good employers and we'll continue to do that."
Lawmakers rejected his arguments, saying that fuel costs are high across the country, not just in Pittsburgh.
They also argued that other airlines, like Southwest, have seen expansions in the region. According to Mr. Specter's office, 10 of Pittsburgh's 12 airlines saw significant increases in the number of passengers they served from August 2006 to August of this year.
Meanwhile, US Airways has been profitable.
"I know times change and I know a company is in business to make money," Mr. Specter said. "Well, US Airways made $475 million the first five months [of the year]."
The senator looked for confirmation from Mr. Parker, who said quietly, "Yes."
Mr. Specter shot back: "He's a good witness on one point at least."
The 20-minute news conference, which took place in the lobby of the senator's office, had the feel of a tense hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Mr. Specter chaired up until this year. He repeatedly interrupted Mr. Parker, who spoke quickly and stuck to a series of talking points.
Mr. Specter was especially furious about reports that US Airways is threatening to abandon a proposed flight between Philadelphia and Beijing if the Pennsylvania city allows Delta Air Lines to use a terminal that handles both domestic and international traffic.
The senator called the airline's actions "extortion." Mr. Parker said US Airways was concerned that the move by Delta could interfere with plans to expand its international operations in Philadelphia.
Mr. Specter also outlined some of his work over two decades of trying to accommodate the needs of US Airways in Pennsylvania, including the 1992 opening of the $1 billion Pittsburgh International Airport.
"[Former Sen.] John Heinz and I worked our fingers to the bone to get that hub airport there," Mr. Specter said. "And suddenly it goes up in smoke."
Mr. Parker said past commitments from the airline were made by a different leadership and couldn't be applied in today's business climate. Pittsburgh's airport, he said, is a remnant of the outdated "hub-and-spoke" system of air travel, which can't compete with low-cost airlines that fly directly between cities.
One of those airlines, Dallas-based Southwest, plans to add at least two more Pittsburgh flights next year as US Airways retrenches. It is already the airport's second-largest carrier.
Yesterday, it rolled out a new set of "business select" fares that are $10-30 higher than the carrier's current top fares but allow elite travelers to board sooner, receive extra frequent flier miles and a free drink.
The change is part of a larger Southwest strategy to court business travelers. Southwest is also changing its boarding process by assigning each traveler a place in line, and it is updating gates at more than 60 airports, including Pittsburgh International, with stainless steel columns and flat screen televisions.
Mr. Parker said US Airways would always be Pittsburgh's largest carrier.
"OK, write that down," Mr. Specter told reporters.
"That is our hope," Mr. Parker said.
Mr. Specter responded: "That's different."