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How A Merger Could Affect Congress' Favorite Airport
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How A Merger Could Affect Congress' Favorite Airport


How A Merger Could Affect Congress' Favorite Airport
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An old saying holds where you stand is determined by where you sit. Here's a variation: Where you stand is determined by whether you have a seat on the plane. US Airways and American Airlines want to merge. The combined airline would control two-thirds of take-off and landing slots at Washington D.C.'s Reagan National Airport. The government could force the airline to give up some of slots as a condition of the merger. But that could reduce service to some small and medium-sized cities, eliminating flights that lawmakers use themselves.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: If you stand at the right place on Capitol Hill, you can hear the roar of the engines as flights take off and land at Reagan National Airport, a short taxi ride away. It's a standing joke that lawmakers are smelling the jet fumes as they rush out the door at the end of the week, heading for their flights home. So it's easy to be skeptical about the letter signed by over 100 lawmakers from both parties, urging the Justice Department, which is reviewing the merger, to preserve the nonstop flights from Reagan National to small and medium-sized airports across the country.

But Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud of Maine, who's heard this before, says it's really not about the lawmakers.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE MICHAUD: It has nothing to do with lawmakers' convenience, and everything to do with representing small communities that rely on these direct flights for economic benefits. This is a bipartisan response to what we have heard from our constituents back home in the district.

NAYLOR: Michaud represents Maine's Second District and lives about 65 miles from Bangor, which has three daily nonstops to the nation's capital. Tony Caruso, director of Bangor International Airport, says those flights are pretty full.

TONY CARUSO: There's quite a bit of travelers. It's just a good mix of both business and leisure travel. The load factor, which is basically the number of seats sold on those aircraft, they average over 80 percent. Certainly we think these flights are critical to the overall health and growth of the Bangor region and Maine economy.

NAYLOR: The Justice Department has forced airlines to divest themselves of slots as a condition of approving past mergers. At a Senate hearing on the proposed US Airways-American deal, Douglas Parker, the chairman and CEO of US Airways warned smaller cities would lose out if the combined airline has to give up slots at Reagan National.

DOUGLAS PARKER: The slots that will be utilized by the new American are used to provide service to smaller communities that if other airlines were given those slots, they would not go to similar sized communities. They'd be flown to larger markets. I think that would be bad for consumers.

NAYLOR: Parker said the new airline would likely give up its least profitable routes from Reagan National if it had to give up slots, say to places like Bangor, and keep the slots for flights to more populous cities. And the airlines that won the new slots wouldn't necessarily have to fly to the smaller cities either.

American Antitrust Institute director Diana Moss says this points to a problem with airline mergers.

DIANA MOSS: All of these legacy mergers are driving traffic to large hubs at the expense of service to smaller communities. And I think this particular problem at National, which is just one of multiple hubs that are affected by this, I think this is where the rubber meets the road. Can you have a merger of this size, with this competitive impact, and still be able to fix it?

NAYLOR: From long haul flights to Phoenix - instituted at the urging of Arizona Senator John McCain - to noise and late night restrictions urged by members of the local Maryland and Virginia delegations - Congress has a long history of involving itself in the workings of its favorite airport.

Whether lawmakers can influence the process this time will soon become clear. The Justice Department is thought likely to rule on the proposed airline merger sometime this summer.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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