US Airways cuts seen as 'nightmare' Reduced BWI service would slash travel options, experts say

'Impact would be huge'

Labor concessions tied to threat of further downsizing

April 12, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

BWI could suffer crippling consequences if US Airways follows through on its threat to labor unions to cut costs by slashing local operations, travel experts say.

"It would be a nightmare," said Lisa Haber, owner of Travel Agents International in Timonium.

In a meeting with hundreds of employees in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Chief Executive Stephen M. Wolf and President Rakesh Gangwal said the airline must secure labor concessions or scale back to a smaller, regional carrier.

If concessions are not made, they said, US Airways would eliminate three money-losing operations, including its Florida service, transcontinental flights and what's left of its hub operation at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

While most agreed the threat is a pressure tactic aimed at the unions, observers say the airline will follow through if it fails to reach critical cost-cutting labor agreements.

"I don't think it's just a bluff," said Dave Stempler, president of AirTrav Advisors, a Washington travel consulting firm. "Wolf has in the past been prepared to follow through if he doesn't get the kinds of changes that he's called for."

The threat to further reduce at BWI has added credibility because the airline has been downsizing there almost since it merged with Piedmont in 1989. Just last week, in one of the largest single cuts in recent years, US Airways announced that it is eliminating another 20 daily flights in June -- including its Caribbean and Canadian service -- and laying off several hundred workers.

After those reductions, US Airways will operate about 75 jet flights a day at BWI -- half the number it operated only seven years ago -- and 76 regional turboprop flights. Still, it will remain the dominant player at BWI, handling at least 40 percent of its passengers.

The prospect of losing more service here is indeed bleak, one that would dramatically reduce travel options for business and leisure travelers to destinations not currently served by other carriers.

"The impact would be huge on Baltimore," said Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbor Travel in Baltimore.

Passengers might be forced to drive an hour to congested National Airport in Washington or to make inconvenient and time-consuming connections. For instance, US Airways, which changed its name from USAir in March, currently offers three nonstop flights a day to Rochester, N.Y. The only other service from BWI is provided by Continental Airlines, connecting through either Cleveland or Newark, N.J.

Corporate and leisure travelers would find it more difficult to accumulate or use US Airways frequent flyer points. Flights to popular destinations, such as Florida and the West Coast, would be dramatically reduced at BWI.

"Southwest doesn't serve anywhere near as many cities in Florida, and right now it wouldn't have the capacity to absorb additional passengers," Haber said.

Currently, only US Airways and United offer nonstop service to the West Coast. US Airways operates four flights a day to Los Angeles and San Francisco and is adding another one to San Francisco this summer.

The economic impact of a pullout by US Airways could be devastating for 2,000 workers, including flight crews based in Baltimore as well as ticket agents and other ground workers.

In the long run, however, Maryland and airport officials insist that the state-owned BWI would recover if US Airways cut back significantly.

"The BWI market is so strong, facilities so good and operating costs so reasonable, that a lot of airlines would look to the US Airways pull-down as an opportunity," said Jay Hierholzer, associate administrator for marketing and development at BWI.

US Airways currently operates 24 gates on Pier D. The airport would not likely attract another hub carrier, since airlines nationwide have been eliminating hubs, or centers for connecting flights. Instead of one airline taking over Pier D, several carriers would likely add flights, Hierholzer said.

Yet using Pier D as an arrival and departure facility, instead of a hub, is problematic. Built by the state and leased to US Airways over a long term, Pier D was designed to be a facility where passengers would transfer to connecting flights.

Increasingly, however, BWI has become an airport where travelers either arrive or depart from Baltimore, rather than make connections. Already, that has overburdened USAirways' ticket counters, its baggage claims area and other facilities.

If US Airways is successful in getting its costs cut, BWI could find itself at the center of the airline's plans to launch a low-cost express flight operation to compete with the growing number of discount flights by other carriers on the East Coast.

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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