Armed with three-ring binders, color graphs and pages of analysis, Maryland aviation officials launched a campaign last winter to stop the proposed merger of US Airways and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines.
The $11.6 billion cash and debt deal would leave Baltimore-Washington International Airport users with fewer choices, less competition and higher airfares, state transportation officials charged.
But with U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and a growing number of antitrust experts predicting that the merger will never win Justice Department approval, BWI officials may have little to celebrate in victory.
With its losses mounting and the economy slowing, US Airways is expected to begin looking for more ways to cut costs and restructure its routes in a final bid to avoid joining the ranks of Trans World Airlines and other failed carriers. And some analysts predict BWI will be one of the first places US Airways officials will look to eliminate service.
"If it were my decision, the decision would already be made," said Darryl Jenkins, executive director of the George Washington University Aviation Institute. "I would be getting my tail out of there."
US Airways has long been noted for having the highest cost structure in the industry among major carriers. That puts it at a pronounced disadvantage to Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, BWI's biggest user and the undisputed leader among low-cost airlines.
In addition, analysts say, US Airways' hubs in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington's Reagan National Airport are too close together and make it that much harder to justify maintaining a strong presence at BWI, which lies several hours' drive or less from the other three airports. "They have no competitive advantage [at BWI] whatsoever," Jenkins said.
BWI was destined to lose a significant portion of its US Airways service regardless of whether the merger with United won approval, said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an Evergreen, Colo., aviation consulting firm. The airline simply has too many East Coast hubs, he said.
"They're not going to pull out of BWI completely, but they're not going to have the connecting hub like they did 10 years ago," Boyd said.
United Airlines announced in May 2000 that it would eliminate service to eight cities served by US Airways from BWI if the merger was approved. That would amount to a reduction of about 30 flights per day, according to airport officials.
Though the merger has yet to be approved, US Airways is taking steps to eliminate many of those same flights on its own. Last month, the airline eliminated one daily flight to Tampa, Fla. Beginning last Sunday, the airline eliminated its five daily flights to Cleveland. This month, one US Airways flight per day will be eliminated between BWI and Chicago; Jacksonville, Fla.; Manchester, N.H.; and West Palm Beach, Fla. In August, one of the airline's seven daily flights from BWI to Providence, R.I., will be scrapped.
Also in August, five US Airways mainline flights to Boston will be replaced with six flights daily on MetroJet, US Airways' low-cost airline-within-an-airline.
"It's just a restructuring of the fleet," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for US Airways. "We regularly look at the markets where we fly to determine where those flights will service our customers best."
Paradoxically, US Airways has been posting double-digit gains in passengers at BWI during much of the past year as part of its strategy to grow business in the face of competition from Southwest, JetBlue and other low-cost carriers on the East Coast. April traffic numbers show US Airways handled 443,018 passengers at BWI, up 11 percent over April 2000.
The unanswered question is whether US Airways is making money off the additional passengers, said Julius Maldutis, an analyst with CIBC World Markets. He noted that TWA managed to wrest market share from Southwest at its St. Louis hub, but the effort may have contributed to TWA's recent bankruptcy sale to American Airlines.
US Airways' gains have not stopped the Southwest juggernaut at BWI. Southwest has grown at an ever-increasing pace, adding several East Coast destinations in the past year and funneling much of the new traffic through BWI.
The April traffic numbers show Southwest posting a 33.6 percent gain in passengers over April 2000., helping the airport achieve a single-month passenger record of 1.8 million. The continuing expansion has made BWI the nation's fastest-growing airport and the busiest of the Baltimore-Washington area's three major airports.
Analysts don't see the airport's growth slowing significantly in the next few years, regardless of what happens with US Airways. However, that hasn't stopped airport officials from renewing their concerns about the airline's future - merger or not.
"Southwest is not going to increase their frequency enough to pick up all of those [lost] flights," said John White, a BWI spokesman.
Airport officials also contend that airfares could go up on routes where US Airways and Southwest once competed for passengers.
"Competition is always an issue here," White said.