USAir seeks London route, snubbing BWI Flights would leave from all of airline's other hub cities

Md. airport struggles

British Air-American alliance is catalyst in service changes

August 22, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Faced with the prospect of a mega-alliance between British Airways and American Airlines, USAir yesterday asked federal authorities for permission to fly to London's Heathrow Airport from all of its hubs -- except Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The filing with the U.S. Department of Transportation was the latest in a series of moves by the Arlington, Va.-based carrier to build its trans-Atlantic service, and yet another indication that it will bypass BWI in those expansion efforts.

USAir also has been downsizing its domestic operations in Baltimore.

"We did a lot of very, very careful analyses about which places made the best commercial and competitive sense, and it came down to these four [airports]," Richard M. Weintraub, a spokesman for USAir, said about the airline's decision to seek permission to fly to London from Charlotte, N.C.; Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; and Boston.

Officials at BWI said USAir's request comes as no surprise because the airline has made Philadelphia International Airport -- just 90 miles north of Baltimore -- its international gateway.

The request "is consistent with their announced policy about priorities on international service," said Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator at BWI. "They've been upfront all along."

USAir flies to Frankfurt, Madrid, Munich, Paris and Rome from Philadelphia. It also flies to Frankfurt from Pittsburgh and Boston.

Still, USAir's international buildup in Philadelphia underscores the difficulty that BWI faces in luring European service, even as it moves forth with a $130 million expansion of the airport's international terminal, scheduled for completion next year.

BWI offers only one, year-round daily flight to Europe, via British Airways to London. But the anticipated alliance between British Airways and American raises questions about what will happen to that flight here.

Many analysts believe that the alliance between American and British Airways will end USAir's own three-year partnership with British Airways.

As a result, British Airways' daily flight from BWI to Gatwick Airport in London probably would not receive feeder traffic from the 180 daily USAir flights. There are only eight American Airlines flights per day operating at BWI. The airline recently scrapped its service to Chicago.

John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways in New York, said yesterday that the airline has no intention of discontinuing its flight from BWI to London.

"Any change in the BA-USAir alliance is some time off," he said. "With the USAir feed, it's become a good, healthy route. Whether it would still be profitable, I wouldn't want to guess."

BWI officials say the British Airways' Boeing 767, which carries 213 passengers, is heavily booked -- more than 90 percent -- during the summer. The flight is not dependent on connecting traffic from USAir, they said, because the majority of its passengers begin or end their trips in Baltimore.

"We haven't been given any information from either carrier [USAir or British Airways] that the BA flight is in jeopardy," Schaus said.

Airport officials have been lobbying British Airways to increase the size of its plane along with the frequency of flights, but Lampl said the airline currently has no plans to expand here.

British Airways served BWI off and on between 1984 and 1987, when it suspended service here and moved to Washington-Dulles International Airport, where it now operates two daily flights much of the year. It returned to Baltimore in 1993, after forming the alliance with USAir.

As part of the alliance, USAir was required to give up its right to fly to London from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charlotte. But, in seeking the routes to Heathrow, USAir yesterday argued that otherwise American and British Airways would totally dominate those markets.

"These routes will ensure the level of competition that consumers need," Stephen M. Wolf, chairman and CEO of USAir, said yesterday in a statement.

Before federal authorities could act on USAir's request, the bilateral agreement of the United States and the United Kingdom would have to be changed. Only United and American Airlines have landing rights at Heathrow.

Greater access to Heathrow is the focal point of continuing "open skies" talks between the two countries. The next session of the negotiations is set for next week in Washington.

"What's necessary is to have access to Heathrow," Weintraub said. "Heathrow is the fulcrum to us."

British Airways' Lampl said yesterday that USAir's filing "proves precisely what we have been saying all along: that the BA-American alliance and open skies would increase competition and would be in the consumer's interest."

Dallas-based American Airlines issued a statement yesterday saying that the carrier supports more access to Heathrow for other carriers, and that it recognizes that a more liberal aviation agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom will be necessary before American's alliance with British Airways can be approved.

But American said such access can be costly, noting that it spent more than $440 million in 1991 to acquire its routes to Heathrow from Trans World Airlines.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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