US Air cuts back further at BWI Fewer daily flights, layoffs announced

April 02, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

US Airways continued its downsizing at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, laying off several hundred workers and scrapping most of its Caribbean and Canadian flights here as well as service to Cleveland and Louisville, Ky.

Since it acquired Piedmont Airlines in 1989, the Arlington, Va.-based carrier has dramatically reduced its service at BWI. Yesterday's move, however, was one of the single most significant cuts, leaving only 76 US Airways daily jet flights, fewer than half the number just seven years ago.

The latest move could foreshadow more reductions, as US Airways, which has the highest costs in the airline industry, seeks to eliminate overlapping service at its costly East Coast hubs and build up its Philadelphia operation.

"We're concentrating on the international hub out of Philadelphia and fine-tuning the hub system to reduce overlap," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the airline, which changed its name from USAir to US Airways earlier this year.

While the cuts represent a setback for BWI, the impact is less severe than it might have been several years ago. A number of major airlines, including Southwest, have been increasing their flights during the past 18 months.

And US Airways, which once operated more than 70 percent of the daily flights at BWI, today handles only 45 percent of the airport's 31,000 daily passengers.

Effective June 15, US Airways will eliminate its daily service to Grand Cayman; Nassau, Bahamas; St. Thomas/St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands; as well as its two daily flights to Ottawa. In addition, it will cut its weekly service to Cancun, Mexico, and St. Martin in the British Virgin Islands. Altogether, those flights carry nearly one-third of BWI's 800,000 annual international passengers.

In addition, the airline will change its Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., jet service to commuter turboprops and cut 10 commuter flights, reducing the total number of daily express flights to 70. Five cities will be eliminated from the commuter schedule.

The move by US Airways comes just six months before BWI's $130 million international terminal is scheduled to open. State officials have been struggling to attract new flights to the state-owned facility, which currently offers limited international service.

Seniority governs layoffs

In meetings yesterday, US Airways employees were told that cuts will be made by seniority and that under the worst-case scenario, roughly 220 workers, or one-fourth of the 860 full- and part-time gate workers, ticket agents and mechanics, will be laid off. None of the 1,000 pilots or flight attendants based in Baltimore is affected.

"This has been going on for six years," said one worker on Pier D, where US Airways operates 24 gates.

US Airways declined to say whether further cuts are anticipated here.

"We don't want to address what could happen," Castelveter said. "Baltimore has been and always will be an important city for us. These numbers are much smaller than other hubs, but it's still a significant number."

By comparison, the US Airways hub in Philadelphia, just 90 miles away, offers 329 jet and commuter flights every day. By mid-June, US Airways will operate a total of 146 flights a day at BWI.

BWI officials yesterday downplayed the significance of the latest cuts.

"We are concerned about the people being displaced," said Theodore E. Mathison, BWI's administrator. "But overall the impact is not as great as one might think."

Other airlines have been growing steadily, with eight new nonstop daily flights anticipated by August. In addition, US Airways plans to add flights to Boston and San Francisco and one to Philadelphia to connect to the flights it is shifting there from BWI.

Mathison also predicted that other airlines will gradually move into the markets being abandoned by US Airways.

In outlining cuts yesterday, US Airways signaled that it will continue to retreat from competition here with Southwest Airlines, ending its three jet flights a day to Cleveland and two to Louisville. Last year, it eliminated service to Birmingham, Ala., and cut back flights to Cleveland.

"Those flights couldn't be making any money," Mathison said. "But US Airways has more problems than competition from low-cost carriers. It must get its costs under control."

Faced with the highest costs in the industry and the growing competition from low-cost airlines such as Southwest, US Airways has been trying for more than three years to get cost concessions from its labor unions.

Last fall, it asked its pilots union for cuts that would allow it to start a low-cost service to compete with Southwest and other discount carriers along the East Coast, traditionally US Airway's sacred turf.

After losing $3 billion between 1989 and 1995, US Airways has returned to profitability during the past two years. But Chairman Stephen M. Wolf has told employees that the low-cost operation is critical for the airline's long-term viability.

Essentially, the carrier wants the leeway to operate smaller equipment and pay people less, but fly more hours.

Speculation has focused on BWI as a hub for such a low-cost US Airways operation. Mathison said he was told yesterday by US Airways officials that the airline might add flights again at BWI if it is successful in reducing its costs.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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