Air Transport World

Activism comes to air service.

Airports and communities no longer play doormat to domineering airlines

US communities are becoming more assertive about the air service they do or don't want. Fed up with high fares, lack of competition and back-of-the-hand treatment from airlines grown arrogant from profits, consolidation and federal mandates, they are seeking slots previously awarded only to airlines. They are changing airport gate lease terms and going after service they do want with sophisticated market analyses. They are chasing away service they don't want and generally bringing more political pressure to bear in whatever cause they are pursuing.

This trend is seen at nonhubs with unsatisfactory service, hubs that have played doormat to their dominant airline and airports not wanting airline service at all. Passenger facility charges, political pressure and regulatory sympathy are giving courage to many who previously had none.

Among the examples:

* After years of kowtowing to Northwest, an embarrassed Metropolitan Airports Commission in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., has become more active in seeking new services and helping those who want to provide it.

* Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland was one of the first to defy its dominant tenant and continues to define its air service needs despite opposition.

* Cities such as Savannah/Hilton Head have demanded that they, not airlines, be given slots at controlled airports to help them attract needed service.

* Raleigh/Durham, which serves North Carolina's high-tech Research Triangle among other growing business centers, learned its lesson only after building a new terminal for American Airlines, which then closed its hub there.

* The Des Moines (Iowa) and Peoria (Ill.) business communities backed up rhetoric with sizeable start-up capital for Access Air.

* By contrast, Arapahoe County in Colorado rejected new commercial air service despite the potential loss of federal funding.

In May 1998, the US DOT launched a study of 13 airports and whether their practices discouraged competition. The study itself was a reaction to reports from the General Accounting Office and complaints from small airlines and business travelers. Even so, DOT did not act without knowing it had Congressional support for something it should have done a long time ago.

Seeing the federal government act in the form of the airport study and the controversial proposing of predatory pricing guidelines provided political cover for communities. A longtime air service development manager figures that "DOT has made it easier for communities to convince airlines to serve them" via its reawakened, more-public actions on behalf of competition. One DOT manager's view is that for too long cities relied on their airport managers: "Some city officials have been critical of airport management. They say, 'They think of their job as mowing the grass and maintaining the terminal."'

One change in direction is occurring at Minneapolis/St. Paul and its Metropolitan Airports Commission. A government analyst suggests they have "gotten religion" primarily because of a well-publicized study showing how high MSP's fares were. …

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