Two Illinois Cities Wary of Fare Fight; Fear Loss of AirTran as Delta Enters Fray

Airport officials at the Quad City International Airport in Moline and Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington say the new service by Atlanta-based Delta is the start of a fare war that ultimately could leave the communities with less service.


Jan. 30--Most airports welcome service from a major carrier with open arms and pledges of support.

But in two Downstate communities, recent moves by Delta Air Lines have been greeted with concern and anger.

Airport officials at the Quad City International Airport in Moline and Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington say the new service by Atlanta-based Delta is the start of a fare war that ultimately could leave the communities with less service.

Delta recently initiated service to its Atlanta hub from both airports. It also plans service to Orlando from the two cities.

Not coincidentally, both airports are served by AirTran Airways, a discount carrier that also flies to Atlanta and has announced flights to Orlando.

If a pitched battle between the two ensues, airport officials in both cities worry AirTran, which has been present in each community for about a decade, will leave. The airports still would be served by United, Northwest and American Airlines' Eagle unit, but they would lose their only discount carrier.

It is not the first time the two airlines have battled. Both have Atlanta hubs. Delta is restructuring while in bankruptcy protection, while AirTran is one of the few carriers to post a profit last year. Though their missions are different--Delta has an international reach, and AirTran is a low-cost airline--they compete vigorously with each other for travelers to Atlanta.

The decision by Delta to match AirTran in the two Illinois cities seems intended only to hurt its competitor, said Carl Olson, executive director of the Bloomington airport.

"In this case, Delta isn't really adding anything," he said. "It's all predatory. It's purely to weaken AirTran. It's not looking to add anything to the market. It's not to invest in the community."

The prices the two are offering are nearly identical. For example, the round-trip price to Atlanta from Bloomington is $198 on either airline.

Glen Hauenstein, who joined Delta in August as chief of network and revenue management, has heard the concerns. It is not the response the carrier is used to, he said.

"Most of the time, competition is welcome with open arms," he said. "At best, we've had a cool reception."

Worries that Delta is only in the communities to give headaches to AirTran are unfounded, he said. "Delta has committed to these markets."

Delta, which sought bankruptcy protection in September, has been changing its route structure to maximize profitability, Hauenstein said.

"There are relatively large markets from our hub in Atlanta to Bloomington and Moline, and we were letting our competitor serve them, and we didn't," he said. "I'd never seen that before."

Delta entered the Quad Cities in October and Bloomington in December. It was new to Bloomington, while in the Quad Cities its service to Cincinnati ended when Atlanta flights began.

This month, soon after AirTran announced seasonal service from Atlanta to Seattle, a route Delta also flies, Delta responded with new service to Orlando from five cities AirTran serves. Among them was Bloomington and Moline.

"It's shooting from the hip," Olson said. "They're mad at Delta and they're going to retaliate. It's tit for tat."

For Quad Cities' travelers, the decision to dump Cincinnati service meant one less city served directly from the airport. Instead, an abundance of seats to Atlanta can be had, said Bruce Carter, director of aviation in Moline. "Airports can't restrict this," he said. "As airport directors, it puts us in a pretty tough position."

AirTran is Bloomington's largest carrier and the third largest in Moline.

Robert Fornaro, AirTran president and chief operating officer, called Delta an airline that refuses to make rational business decisions. There is not enough demand in the markets to support two carriers serving Atlanta, he said.

"And for a carrier in bankruptcy to be starting new routes ... they should be shedding capacity," he said.

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