BANGOR, Maine — A new wrinkle in the proposed merger of U.S. Airways and American Airlines could pose a threat to Bangor International Airport’s current service to Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division is currently weighing whether, in the pending merge, the new company should be forced to give up some its slots at Reagan National Airport for competitive reasons.
Such a decision would put flights to smaller and medium-sized markets, such as Bangor, at risk because other airlines would use them to reach larger markets, according to Anthony Caruso, director of the Bangor International Airport.
“Originally when the merger was discussed we didn’t have any concerns, but as talk of slot divestiture started to happen it certainly increased the risk of the small and medium size cities losing or reducing service,” Caruso said Thursday. “It does remain a risk to us.”
U.S. Airways currently provides three roundtrip flights between Bangor International Airport and Reagan National, which is known by its airport code DCA. The route, which began in March 2012, has “performed very well,” Caruso said. “It certainly worked out to be a very good, strong performing route for U.S. Airways and certainly for the Bangor market.”
The service is provided by a 50-person jet and the percentage of seats sold on each flight ranges between 80 percent and 90 percent, Caruso said. A good mix of business and leisure travelers use the route, he said, and DCA is the final destination for 35 percent of the traffic.
He couldn’t quantify how the loss of the service would affect the airport or regional economy.
Caruso sent a letter on April 26 to the DOJ’s antitrust division to advocate for the merged American-U.S. Airways company being able to retain its slots at DCA.
“As the U.S. Department of Justice reviews this merger, I encourage you to support efforts to preserve services to more remote locations like Bangor, Maine,” Caruso wrote in his letter to
DOJ’s antitrust division.
“Likewise, it is important that you oppose proposals to reallocate the slots currently reserved for U.S. Airways and American Airlines at DCA, as I fear not doing so would result in the cancellation of services to Bangor.”
Sen. Susan Collins uses the flight to get to and from her Bangor residence and her office in Washington, D.C. Her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, said the service provides “an important connection for residents and job creators in central and eastern Maine and for tourists visiting our state.
“Senator Collins is hopeful that, as this merger is considered, those involved take into consideration many factors, including the potential economic impact this could have on communities, such as Bangor,” Kelley wrote in an email on Thursday.
Rep. Mikel Michaud sent a letter on Tuesday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Attorney General Eric Holder voicing his concern that forcing the merged airline company to divest its slots at DCA would hurt local economies. The letter was signed by a bipartisan coalition of 105 other representatives, including Rep. Chellie Pingree.
“These flights provide economic benefits by facilitating commerce, encouraging tourism, and making these small and medium sized communities attractive locations for new businesses,” Michaud’s letter says.
Taking away slots from the soon-to-merge company would lead to the loss of service to those communities because, “Other airlines lack the necessary connectivity out of Reagan National and would be more likely to transfer any divested slots to larger cities and more lucrative routes,” the letter says.
Sen. Angus King also sent a letter on April 29 to LaHood, Holder, and Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
“As your competition and antitrust review of the American Airlines and U.S. Airways merger continues, I urge you to consider the effect that forced slot divestiture will have on service to regional airports,” Sen. King wrote to the trio. “I stand with Bangor International Airport and other mid-sized airports throughout the country in their efforts to maintain airline service and the economic activity that such service facilitates.”
The situation is different in Portland, where the city’s jetport has multiple daily flights to airports in the Washington, D.C. metro area, which is currently the number one destination for people traveling from Portland, according to Paul Bradbury, director of the Portland International Jetport.
U.S. Airways currently has four daily roundtrip flights between Portland and DCA, Bradbury said.
Bradbury said he’s not worried by the possible divestiture and its impact on Portland, but isn’t familiar with the details.
The stakes are not as high in Portland, which also has daily service to Washington Dulles International Airport via United Airlines and Baltimore Washington International Airport via Southwest Airlines.
From Bradbury’s perspective, the American-U.S. Airways merger will help Portland by providing access to American Airlines’ network, which it currently lacks.
“You have to pay attention to the big picture as opposed to this detail,” Bradbury said. “We have to take a step back and look at it on the macro level. And the overall picture of the merger on Portland is positive.”
Meanwhile in Bangor, Caruso is keeping a close eye on the DOJ process with fingers crossed that a decision born of antitrust worries won’t reduce a service used by the people of central, northern and eastern Maine.