Orlando, Fla., Airport Should See Little Change

Sep. 15--Delta Air Lines, historically Orlando's largest carrier, pledged to fly its normal routes, honor ticket reservations and maintain its frequent-flier program as the company begins to restructure in the wake of Wednesday's filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Changes are especially unlikely in Florida for Atlanta-based Delta, which directs about a fourth of all of its flights to the state.

So far, all signs point to the airline and its subsidiaries, Comair and discount carrier Song, continuing their regular routes, including 125 daily flights out of Orlando International Airport. It flies another 10 daily flights out of Melbourne International Airport in Brevard County and operates out of Daytona Beach International.

"I don't see them making any substantial changes in flights in the Southeast -- particularly in Orlando, which is a Delta mini-hub," said industry analyst Stuart Klaskin of KKC Aviation Consulting in Miami.

While passengers will notice little difference in the way Delta, Song and Comair operate, stakeholders at Orlando International Airport will keep a close eye on the airline's next move.

"Delta's activity has been strong throughout the summer, as has all of our activity throughout the airport," said OIA Deputy Director for Finance Maureen Riley. "We hope that they continue. We're encouraged by the numbers."

Delta flew 450,000 passengers in and out of OIA in June, the most recent month for which figures are available. That was down slightly from the same month a year ago.

Delta, including Song and Comair, pays OIA about $23 million a year in landing fees and rent for 24 gates and up to 14 parking positions. The payments make up about 8 percent of the airport's total budget of more than $300 million.

Those payments are expected to continue through the bankruptcy, Riley said, unless the company decides to give up its leases on the gates. Riley expects the same action from Northwest Airlines, which also filed for bankruptcy Wednesday.

Any default on those payments would ripple through the balance sheets of the 13 other airlines at OIA with so-called signatory status -- meaning they control part of the airport's spending, but also are required to make up any budget shortfalls.

If that were to happen, Southwest Airlines, which has recently rivaled Delta as the busiest carrier in Orlando, could be positioned to expand and seal its status as Orlando's leader.

"On one hand we don't have a knee-jerk reaction, but certainly it's something we would watch if there are opportunities in the Orlando market to fill a demand void," said Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford. "But it's got to make sense for the community and in terms of passenger demands."

Delta, which carried 5.4 million passengers through OIA last year, has flown from Orlando longer than any other carrier still in business. It didn't surpass Eastern Airlines as the local leader until Eastern's financial collapse about 15 years ago.

If Delta eventually decides not to pay on its airport lease, the other signatory airlines would be required to chip in and make up the difference. The signatories contribute about 25 percent of the airport's overall budget.

But that decision is likely to take awhile. United Airlines, for example, continued to pay as a signatory carrier for more than two years after it filed for bankruptcy protection, Riley said.

More at risk are Delta's retirees and estimated 600 Orlando-based current employees who are worried about their pensions, benefits and additional pay cuts.

"I've had this feeling of inevitability," said Bob Gandt, a retired Delta pilot who lives in Daytona Beach. "The medical plan will probably change, but I don't expect the pension to be terminated. The good news is that it looks like Delta will continue to operate."