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.

Less likely are hopes held by some that US Airways will revive the Pittsburgh hub, perhaps as a way of alleviating congestion at delay-prone Philadelphia International Airport. "What I have heard through the grapevine," Mr. Lauer said, "is telling me that US Airways route network planners are in fact looking at reviving a lot of that transcontinental flying out of Pittsburgh as a transit point for [the airline's] East Coast operations. That was always very profitable for US Airways."

Mr. Parker dismissed such talk, saying Philadelphia, being a much larger city, could draw from a larger base of local air travelers. That is a message, he knows, that is not popular with Pittsburgh-area employees -- 3,000 of whom remain. "It is so emotional there still," he said.

Charlotte, he said, has not suffered from the same retrenchment because it is virtually the only option, other than Atlanta, for travelers in the Southeast hoping to make connections to the Caribbean or Latin America, the West Coast or the East Coast, whereas Pittsburgh has more geographic competition, occupying a denser part of the country.

"We connect all the Southeast here," said Mr. Parker, speaking from the Charlotte Convention Center, where the annual shareholders meeting was held.

And Mr. Parker has already proven he will fight for that prized turf.

When low-cost upstart JetBlue Airways announced plans for the start of Charlotte-JFK International service July 12 and JetBlue Chief Executive Officer David Neeleman said in a news release, "Until now, the people of North Carolina have overpaid for substandard service," Mr. Parker responded with three daily flights to the New York airport starting in September and a promise to "compete aggressively" with JetBlue.

In a letter to his 35,000 employees, Mr. Parker cited JetBlue's poor performance recently in on-time arrivals and the New York-based carrier's prediction that it would lose money in 2006. US Airways predicts a profit this year.

"It doesn't appear that our customers are overpaying; rather it appears that passengers aren't willing to pay JetBlue enough for them to be profitable," Mr. Parker said in the letter. "US Airways is going to be here long after JetBlue."

In Pittsburgh, though, US Airways made no such statements after JetBlue announced plans to fly from Pittsburgh International to JFK and Boston's Logan Airport starting June 30. When asked earlier this month about JetBlue's Pittsburgh incursion, Mr. Parker said, "We think our service is adequate."

As long as Charlotte continues to grow -- the city added an estimated 68,000 inhabitants and the six-county area, 184,000 in the past four years, pushing their population to 648,000 and 1,595,000, respectively -- and to emerge as a corporate center (it is home to nine Fortune 500 companies compared with seven in the Pittsburgh area), US Airways will do what it can to keep competition out.

At least for now, Pittsburgh can still claim the more popular airport.

Pittsburgh International still has twice as many shops as Charlotte-Douglas International, and passengers like the shopping options, spending twice as much on retail purchases while at the airport than do passengers in Charlotte.

But Charlotte is gaining in that area, too. It recently added an airport wine bar and a spa, where anxious passengers can receive a massage, a manicure or a pedicure before their next flights.

Copyright (c) 2006, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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