Charlotte Is Now King At US Airways

A four-year-long retrenchment in Pittsburgh has left Charlotte as the largest hub in the US Airways network, with more than 500 daily departures and 121 nonstop destinations.

Among all towns served by US Airways, the Queen City is king. Proof of its importance to the nation's fifth-largest airline was evident last week in the choice of gathering spot for the first shareholders meeting since last fall's union with America West Airlines.

It was no accident that US Airways Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker landed in Charlotte, flying cross country from his office in Tempe, Ariz.

Nor was it random that Mr. Parker began the meeting on Wednesday morning by praising this sunny southeastern city, its government officials and local business boosters, saying he was "extremely impressed" with their attentiveness to the importance of air travel.

There is perhaps no better symbol of US Airways' resurgence and hope for long-term survival than the once-sleepy and now-vibrant Charlotte. Named after the wife of King George III, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Southeast and the nation's second-largest banking center, a place teeming with young, smartly dressed workers, many of them employed by hometown giants Bank of America, the nation's second-largest bank, or Wachovia Corp., the fourth-largest.

A four-year-long retrenchment in Pittsburgh has left Charlotte as the largest hub in the US Airways network, with more than 500 daily departures and 121 nonstop destinations -- also more than US Airways strongholds Philadelphia, Phoenix, Las Vegas and New York. Charlotte is central to the airline's long-term, post-bankruptcy survival strategy, ferrying passengers every day from the big coastal cities of the Northeast south to more than 20 vacation spots in the Caribbean, and the airport is planning a fourth runway and a new parking deck to accommodate the demand for space.

"There is a real resurgence here in Charlotte, which will drive more and more opportunities for us," said Chuck Allen, who is in charge of government relations and city affairs for US Airways in Charlotte.

The sunny story of Charlotte acts as a foil to Pittsburgh, which lags the rest of the country in job growth, continues to lose population and, at Pittsburgh International, has seen its status as an air transportation hub decline dramatically.

It was only five years ago that Pittsburgh, not Charlotte, was king of the US Airways network, with 517 daily departures and more employees -- topping 12,000 -- than any other city.

Then came 9/11, two bankruptcies by US Airways and a change in strategy -- away from the heavy reliance on Pittsburgh connections between big cities in the Northeast and the rest of the country -- to more north-south connections along the East Coast, and to Florida, the Caribbean and Latin America.

US Airways now has 170 flights per day out of Pittsburgh, down from 236 last May, when the America West merger was announced. It has no flights overseas to Europe, and Mr. Parker said the chance of that returning was not good, with the airline not able to "make the numbers work" despite "inducements" offered by local officials.

Mr. Parker said last week that US Airways lost "lots and lots of money" in Pittsburgh over the last five years, as low-cost competition around the country drove down fares and profit margins.

But he said the carrier's service reductions at Pittsburgh International -- US Airways now accounts for just 55 percent of all flying at the airport -- took out the money-losing routes, making the local operation "marginally profitable." That's a far cry from when US Airways accounted for more than 90 percent of all airport traffic and the operation was a "cash cow" for the carrier, recalls local airline analyst Bill Lauer. But it does suggest further cuts are unlikely, a conclusion that Mr. Parker made in an interview last Wednesday.

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