By TOM DAYKIN
Financially troubled Midwest Airlines released its fall schedule with service cuts, particularly to leisure destinations, that are the steepest in its 24-year history.
The changes take effect Sept. 8. Some customers who have purchased tickets for flights that are being canceled may be rescheduled on other flights; others will be entitled to refunds.
The new schedule reflects big cuts in service to Florida, the West Coast and other areas while retaining flights to what the airline considers core destinations for business travelers. It's a return to the strategy that the company was built upon, executives say.
The changes will roll back Midwest's Milwaukee-based service to levels that existed at the beginning of this decade. In 2000, before a recession and terrorist attacks caused a steep decline in air travel, Midwest offered nonstop flights from Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport to 29 cities.
Come fall, there will be 90 daily departures to 28 cities, down from 118 departures to 38 cities, from Mitchell, where Midwest Airlines and its Midwest Connect regional affiliate are the dominant carriers.
Systemwide, the new schedule will leave Midwest Airlines/Midwest Connect with 102 daily departures. The air group now offers 138 daily departures.
The service cuts, which include some at the carrier's secondary hub in Kansas City, amount to a 30% to 40% service reduction, depending on whether the cuts are measured by passenger capacity or flight miles, said Randy Smith, vice president of sales and distribution.
Major cuts were expected
The company forewarned of the service reductions last month, when it announced it was phasing out a dozen MD-80 jets used for charter service as well as regular passenger service to leisure destinations and West Coast cities. The MD-80s, which make up roughly one-third of the Midwest Airlines fleet, use more fuel than the carrier's 25 Boeing 717 jets.
With the new schedule, two Boeing 717s are being dropped from the fleet.
Last week, the company said it was cutting 1,200 jobs, or around 40 percent of its 3,000-plus work force. Those losing their jobs include pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and ground crews.
Midwest Air is seeking steep pay cuts from its union flight crews and new terms from the company's creditors. The company has said it's trying to avoid filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A Chapter 11 filing would give Midwest Air more power to negotiate new contracts with its vendors, lenders and union workers. But such a filing also would be very expensive.
Business travelers understand that the high price of jet fuel has made life difficult for Midwest and other airlines, said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
But, added Sheehy, "it hurts anytime there's a cut in air service."
Switching from nonstop service to one-stop routes not only requires more travel time, Sheehy said, but also increases the chances of delays.
Midwest's new schedule keeps the main destinations for business travelers but greatly reduces trips to leisure destinations, said Smith and Greg Aretakis, vice president of planning and revenue management.
Record jet fuel costs have made it unprofitable for the airline to fly some routes, Smith and Aretakis said. So Oak Creek-based Midwest Air Group Inc., the corporate parent of Midwest Airlines and Midwest Connect, needs to "redesign the business," Aretakis said.
Focus on business travel
With the cuts, Midwest is returning to its original strategy of focusing on business travelers, Smith said.
"We have a strong base of corporate customers in Milwaukee and Kansas City," he said.
Midwest also is expanding its code share agreement with Northwest Airlines Corp., in which the airlines sell seats on each other's flights. Northwest owns a 47 percent stake in Midwest. The majority owner is TPG Capital of Fort Worth, Texas.
Those flights had been offered through Northwest Airlink, the regional carrier affiliated with Northwest Airlines.
A public brawl has erupted over control of Wisconsin's busiest airfield: Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport.
A dozen MD-80 jets are being phased out; flight cuts, layoffs are likely next.
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