North Carolina Airport Executives Meet With US Airways Officials

Jan. 17--Piedmont Triad Airport Authority officials traveled to Tempe, Ariz., last week to discuss lowering fares and improving service with US Airways officials.

Ted Johnson, the executive director of the airport authority, declined to give details Friday of the talks, but said he was very positive after the meeting,

'They've (US Airways and America West Airlines) just had a merger of two airlines and they've got issues, but they are working through them," he said. "I felt the meeting went very well."

Phil Gee, a spokesman for the airline, said that some fares have been lowered in recent weeks but that the airline is operating in a difficult environment with high fuel costs.

"That is a price that we have yet to effectively mitigate," Gee said. "Unlike other industries we haven't been able to pass that cost on to our customers at this point."

In the talks, airport officials brought up the issue of high fares, and the airline's number of flights and destinations out of PTI, Johnson said.

Piedmont Triad International Airport is suffering from a drop in passengers and it has lost flights. Delta Air Lines Inc. and US Airways cut a combined 12 daily flights in December and Independence Air, its only discount airline, shut down this month.

The airport authority wants to get PTI's fares on parity with fares at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Charlotte Douglas International Airport to compete against their low fares.

Johnson said he hopes to see results at the airport, especially since US Airways has already reduced some fares.

Two weeks ago, US Airways, which is trying to operate under the same low-cost pricing structure that America West did before the merger, lowered fares in 20 of its east coast markets connected to its eastern hubs of Charlotte, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The airline cut roundtrip ticket prices as much as 61 percent to some destinations.

Gee said that, for example, a seven-day advance purchase between Greensboro and Philadelphia was reduced to $268 from $480, a 44 percent reduction; and a 14-day advance purchase for the same destination was reduced to $238 from $338, a 30 percent reduction.

US Airways is also no longer requiring a Saturday night stay in some instances systemwide.

"The things we've done so far is the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Gee said that fares are relatively low in comparison to US Airway's cost of fuel.

He also said that a lot of the markets that the airline serves on the east coast out of its hubs in Charlotte, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are short haul or regional jet flying, which poses a challenge for it to cut costs.

Regional jets are much more expensive to operate than narrow-body aircraft, such as 737s, Gee said.

"The narrow body aircraft are much cheaper to operate because they typically fly them on longer routes and they fit more passengers, which spreads the cost out," he said.

Michael Lovett, the president and chief executive of HRD Strategies Inc., a consulting company in Greensboro that specializes in aviation, said that the Triad needs to be able to offer a feasible market for US Airways.

"The pricing structure is based on flights and people in seats," he said. "The less people you have in seats the more expensive it becomes per seat mile."

He said that it is in the Triad's best interest is to continue to lure as much corporate work and jobs to the area.

"That would boost air traffic," Lovett said. "We've got quality of life, our housing market is somewhat reasonable, and I think that once we make a transition from a manufacturing economy to more of a high-end, either technical and/or service model, than that would help push demand up, which therefore would increase competition."

In the meantime, local airport officials are getting more aggressive in their attempt to get the word out about attractive fares at PTI.

PTI has posted information from airlines about low fares on its Web site for several years, but now it has asked several groups to help it distribute emails about low fares offered by its carriers.

The groups that are helping with PTI's Fare Deal E-Flash are The Piedmont Triad Partnership, Winston-Salem Business Inc., The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and Action Greensboro.

"We're working with the High Point Chamber and the Winston-Salem Chamber to bring them on board," said Stephanie Freeman, the airport authority's marketing coordinator.

She said that the groups have a much bigger contact database than the airport.

"The idea here is to let people in the Triad know that we have some good fares," she said.

Traffic on PTI's Web site increases about 35 percent on Wednesdays after the emails are sent, Freeman said.

The daily average has increased to 1,200 on Wednesday afternoons from 800 since the emails began Dec. 28.