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Supporters of US Airways-American merger rally at Capitol

By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON About 300 pilots and flight attendants from US Airways and American Airlines joined lawmakers from both parties in front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to support creation of the world’s largest airline.

The $11 billion union of American and US Airways was on its way to completion by year’s end until the Justice Department, joined by six states and the District of Columbia, sued last month to block it.

In its complaint, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division claims that the merger would be bad for consumers, leading to reduced competition and higher fares. The case is scheduled to go to trial in federal district court in November.

At Wednesday’s rally, Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., framed the issue in terms of badly needed jobs.

“Don’t you think it’s time,” he asked, “we recognized that this merger’s important for Charlotte, for Dallas, Philadelphia, and every other city to help create jobs?”

Charlotte would be the combined airlines’ second largest hub after Dallas-Fort Worth.

Unions representing airline employees support the merger, and on Wednesday members held signs that read “Let Us Compete Together” and chanted, “DOJ, say OK!”

“We are going to get this done,” said Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “The merger will happen.”

Glading said she and other airline union leaders met Wednesday with Bill Baer, the Justice Department’s antitrust chief, and his deputy, David Gelfand. Several lawmakers are drafting a letter to President Barack Obama requesting that Attorney General Eric Holder drop the antitrust complaint.

Echoing a frequent criticism of the Justice Department lawsuit, James Ray, communications chairman of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, ticked off three major airline mergers the government had approved in recent years and questioned why this one was different.

“Why is it that the same government that deregulated this industry 35 years ago decided to reregulate it today?” he asked.

Where the Justice Department sees an airline colossus that would raise fares and baggage fees, eliminate competition on some routes and dominate takeoff and landing slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the airline employees see a stronger company that would provide more job security and would better compete with large airlines such as Delta and United.

“This was an employee-driven merger,” said Kazumi Chapa, a flight attendant who’s based out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. “We want to survive.”

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said it’s unusual to find such strong employee support for a big merger.

Chaison said that the unions representing the two airlines – which have been battered by years of recession, terrorist attacks and high fuel prices – want stability and certainty.

American employees have a lot at stake: The merger is the company’s plan to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Last week, a federal bankruptcy judge in New York approved the deal.

Chapa said she’s worked at American for 25 years, and she knows some flight attendants who’ve been with the company for twice as long.

“I’ve got a kid in college,” she said. “I want the airline to be solvent.”

Cities where the airlines have a major presence anxiously await the merger’s conclusion. In addition to North Carolina’s Pittenger, lawmakers from other districts with airline hubs rallied alongside the pilots and flight attendants.

“I’m especially proud that American Airlines will maintain its headquarters in north Texas,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas. “Finalizing this deal means job security for over 24,000 Texans.”

The combined company would be headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. However, Texas is one of the states that joined the Justice Department’s lawsuit.

Not everyone at the rally supported the merger. American Eagle flight attendants – wearing bright-green shirts in a sea of dark-blue uniforms – questioned how the merger would benefit employees of American’s regional airline subsidiary.

“We have no idea what the future is for us,” said Mary Oswald, a Chicago-based American Eagle flight attendant.

American Eagle’s future in the new American is uncertain. The parent company discussed selling the regional carrier before it filed for bankruptcy in November 2011. American Eagle pilots and flight attendants were asked to accept contract concessions as part of the restructuring.

Oswald said that in spite of promises of growth, American Eagle hubs have been closed and some jobs have been outsourced to other airlines.

She said the carrier’s 1,800 flight attendants would like to be part of the merged company, but with a stronger guarantee of job security.

“We just want to know that we have a job and that we’re going to grow with the new American,” she said.

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