Airline Merger Means Little change for Charlotte Airport

For Charlotte, the new US Airways could look a lot like the old US Airways.

In the merger announced Thursday with America West, the city's dominant carrier would keep a hub in the city and likely a similar complement of flights, possibly at lower fares.

The airline's 5,600 employees here also could be spared harsh job cuts, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said.

The mayor spoke to US Airways CEO Bruce Lakefield, who will be vice chairman of the merged company, Thursday evening. McCrory said Lakefield promised "at most, a minimal impact on employees" in Charlotte.

"I think it's extremely positive news for US Airways," McCrory said, "which in turn is positive for Charlotte."

Lakefield also told McCrory that service should remain at the same level in the city. US Airways, based in Arlington, Va., has its largest hub in Charlotte, with as many as 577 daily flights. The airline carries about 90 percent of the airport's flights.

Because US Airways dominates flights here, Charlotte has some of the highest fares in the nation. But Charlotte/Douglas aviation director Jerry Orr, who runs the city-owned airport, is looking for lower prices out of the merger.

A combined carrier, with a new pricing model, means prices could fall more in line with other cities, Orr said. "We really expect a more rational pricing scheme," he said. "It's clear that the public is pretty fed up with some people paying $100 and some paying $800 for the same seat."

He said Charlotte prices have already started to drop over the past year. With the merger, which the airlines anticipate closing this fall, "I think you're going to see prices continue to go down."

AirTran is already coming into the airport, and that shouldn't change, he said. As for Southwest, the airline often coveted by travelers seeking low fares, Orr said he doesn't expect it any time soon. "As long as we're a major hub in a relatively small community, it doesn't fit their business model," he said.

As for US Airways employees, they haven't been too stressed by the news of an impending deal, said Mike Flores, Charlotte leader of the flight attendants union.

"I've not really heard many questions or fear from our membership," he said. "We've been through PSA and Piedmont (two mergers) before. It's an incremental process, and I'm sure this one will be like that as well."

It helps that US Airways workers generally have more seniority than America West employees, which should better ensure their place in the combined company. For example, about 80 percent of US Airways flight attendants have more than 14 years of experience, while the most senior America West worker was hired in 1983, when the airline was born.

Others in Charlotte also have a stake in the merger. Take Reggie Brezeault, owner of Carolina Classic Limousine, which carries passengers to the airport eight to 10 times a day.

"From talking to my corporate clients, some think it will be good and some think it will be bad," says the Montreal native, who came to Charlotte as a member of the Checkers hockey team. "It will help things to the West Coast. In the long run, I think it will be a good deal, good for Charlotte and good for accounts in Los Angeles and San Francisco."

The next step for the merger will be winning approval from bankruptcy court, creditors, regulators, shareholders. McCrory talked to Lakefield about how he can help, and Charlotte Chamber CEO Carroll Gray also says he's willing to give a hand.

"Air service is crucial to this economy," Gray said. "We will do whatever we can."