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Airline merger pleases Yeager director

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The merger of American Airlines and US Airways will form the world's largest airline and will create opportunities for Charleston's Yeager Airport, Director Rick Atkinson said Thursday.

Atkinson said he welcomes the news, which he said "made sense" for both airlines.

The airlines announced the $11 billion merger agreement Thursday. The company will operate under the American Airlines name and will be based at American's headquarters in Forth Worth, Texas.

Atkinson said the merger would allow airlines to buy new planes, like Delta Air Lines' mainline service that is starting March 2. Delta is upgrading its Charleston-Atlanta service with 120-passenger DC-9 planes with first-class sections.

Delta will be the only airline at Yeager that offers first class to passengers, which will encourage competitors to do the same, he said.

"Delta starting their mainline service here in March is a big deal in our city and I think you'll see the other airlines over time [follow suit]," Atkinson said. "To be competitive, airlines need to put a mainline here so we think we'll see that more down the road."

Atkinson said the merger would also provide passengers access to other hubs across the country, including American's hubs in Dallas, Miami and Chicago. US Airways' hub in Philadelphia, which Yeager does not have access to now, could become another option for fliers, he said.

"They've got hubs we don't have service with right now.... There's going to be more opportunities probably for us," Atkinson said. "They say they'll keep all their hubs and I believe them."

While Yeager currently flies to Chicago on United, American's hub is in Chicago, so it can serve those flights now, said Brian Belcher, director of marketing and air service development.

Atkinson said economic conditions, including high fuel costs, have pushed a number of airlines to merge. Airlines have tried to cut costs in different avenues and they have been successful when they merge, he said.

"US Airways was doing a pretty good job of competing but they realized [before the merger] it would be harder and harder," Atkinson said.

Delta Air Lines Inc. bought Northwest Airlines Corp. in 2008. United Airlines and Continental closed a deal to create the world's largest airline corporation in 2010.

American and US Airways' merger is the best option for the two airlines because the company is now about the same size as competitors United and Delta, Atkinson said.

Almost 57,000 passengers flew on both United and Continental airlines out of Yeager Airport in 2011, he said. That same year, nearly 93,000 people flew on Delta. US Airways had about 78,000 passengers and American Airlines had almost 23,000 passengers.

Yeager is the only airport in West Virginia that has offered American Airlines flights. Huntington's Tri-State Airport is the only airport that has US Airways. Atkinson said he expects that Tri-State will end up with the new American flights "after it's all said and done."

All three carriers will have about equal share at Yeager, he said.

While ticket prices have increased in recent years -- because of high fuel prices and the economy -- they won't rise at Yeager because of the merger, Atkinson said.

Competition among airlines helps the consumer, Belcher said.

"Here at this airport there is really good competition. If we were dominated by one carrier, that carrier would probably price higher because they dominate the market, but they will be about even here," he said.

Atkinson said the physical appearance of Yeager Airport would not have to go through much change. American and US Airways are located next to each other and operate out of the same gates.

"Nothing much will change here. We don't think we're going to lose anything," Atkinson said.

The merger will not cause Yeager to trim flights and the two airlines do not overlap flights here, he said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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