TEMPE, Ariz. Despite reports that US Airways has worked behind the scenes to push for an independent authority to run Charlotte’s airport, the airline’s chief executive said Wednesday that he doesn’t care who’s in charge, as long as costs stay low.
“What’s important to us is that that airport continue to operate the way it has historically -- which is as one of the best, if not the best, hub airports,” US Airways CEO Doug Parker told the Observer in an interview in the airline’s headquarters city.
So far, US Airways has remained publicly on the sidelines in the acrimonious fight over who will run Charlotte Douglas International Airport. But on Wednesday, a former Charlotte City Council member who is helping lead the push for an airport authority said the initial idea came in part from US Airways.
Stan Campbell said US Airways last June sent him a rough draft of state legislation that would establish an authority, and he started fleshing out the bill after that.
Parker said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of any email with draft legislation being sent by US Airways, and a US Airways spokeswoman denied that the airline had sent any such message.
Parker said US Airways is concerned about the controversy around its busiest hub.
“The fact that they’re at odds is not something we’re happy about, nor that we’re picking sides on,” he said.
The airport has one of the lowest cost-per-passenger to the airlines of any airport. Supporters of an authority have said they worry the city will increase those costs and imperil the hub status.
The bill to remove control of the airport from the city and give it to a new, independent regional authority is awaiting a final vote in the N.C. House that could come next month. The fight has sharply ratcheted up tensions between Charlotte City Council members, who fiercely oppose the idea, and state legislators.
“It’s extremely important to us,” Parker said of the issue. “But we don’t have a view one way or another. ... We are watching it very closely.”
Parker has said, however, that US Airways wants a role in choosing a successor to longtime Aviation Director Jerry Orr. The Observer has reported that US Airways executives were incensed when former Charlotte city manager Curt Walton told them the airline would not have a role in choosing a successor to the 72-year-old Orr, who has hinted he may retire within a year. The city has since committed to giving US Airways a role.
Executives: Hub will stay
Executives said US Airways and American Airlines are still on track to complete their merger in the third quarter. The combined airline will be the world’s largest, with almost $40 billion in annual revenues, 1,500 airplanes and almost 110,000 employees.
Charlotte Douglas will be the combined company’s second-largest hub, behind only Dallas-Fort Worth. US Airways operates about 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte Douglas, accounting for more than 600 daily departures.
Wednesday, US Airways officials repeated their reassurances that the new American Airlines would keep all of its hubs, including Charlotte Douglas.
“Over time it opens up more possibilities for the new American Airlines to fly to and from Charlotte,” said Parker. Officials said Charlotte and the other three US Airways hubs – Philadelphia, Washington’s Reagan National, and Phoenix – are profitable.
Still, other US Airways and America West hubs have been shuttered following the 2005 merger of those airlines. Hubs such as Pittsburgh and Las Vegas were discontinued then because they weren’t profitable enough, executives said.
Parker did say Wednesday that external factors such as increased fuel costs or higher costs to operate at an airport could cause the airline to lower capacity at any of its hubs, but said he doesn’t think those are likely.
Merger planning proceeds
It might be a year or more before customers see merger-related operational changes, such as combined loyalty programs and the actual planes changing paint schemes.
“What everyone has to be focused on is running two really great airlines,” said Bev Goulet, American Airlines’ chief integration officer. She emphasized there is no single point when the airlines will become one, but thousands of separate steps. “I don’t want to underestimate the challenges in any area at this point,” Goulet said.
And there could still be turbulence ahead. American Airlines’ reservation system failure last week caused delays and flight cancellations, and the glitch could offer a preview of computer troubles as the two companies work to integrate their systems. Such technological troubles have hurt other merged airlines.
Executives said the company will try to avoid those problems by focusing on integrating core systems first, and making sure critical ones – reservations and plane dispatching – are combined first.
“Our approach really is this, to do some triage up front,” said US Airways president Robert Isom. “There’s no need at least right now to try to introduce new, better, different things that are on the horizon.”
‘We like to win’
For Parker, the merger represents a personal win. After three failed attempts to engineer a combination of US Airways with competitors Delta and United, he is set to head the world’s largest airline.
On Wednesday, Parker recalled dark days following the Sept. 11 attacks. He had just become CEO of America West, and with air travel plummeting, the carrier faced going out of business. Parker couldn’t secure a government loan, and he thought liquidation might follow.
“For God’s sake, I’m 39 years old, I’ve been CEO for a month and now we’re going to liquidate,” Parker recalled thinking. “That’s not going to look good on the resume.”
Parker went on to secure the government loan and pull off a merger between America West and then-bankrupt US Airways. And though he said he believes the combined company will be better for employees by offering higher wages and stability, Parker said he also takes personal pride in having another merger victory under his belt.
“We like to do things for the greater good, but we’re motivated, of course, as many of us are, by personal things,” said Parker. “We have egos.... We like to win.” Staff Writer Rick Rothacker contributed.
Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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