United Comes to The Small Airports Conference

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By Debby McElroy

There are many views about the proposed merger between United Airlines and Continental Airlines, both pro and con. And, I need to be clear that ACI-NA does not have a position on the merger, as we have members with strong views on both sides.  However, I have to commend United for their willingness to come to the ACI-NA Small Airports Conference in Minneapolis and talk about the merger and air service with the men and women who run small and non-hub airports in the United States and Canada.

Initially, I approached Mark Anderson, United’s vice president – government affairs, about a speaker and he was incredibly helpful in arranging for Kevin Knight, senior vice president – planning, to present the luncheon address at our conference. Kevin’s presentation covered all the ground you would expect, including the economic conditions that led to the proposed merger. He emphasized the importance of small community air service in United’s network operations, citing 14 airports that connect at least 50 percent of their traffic.  Springfield, Ft. Wayne, Lansing, and Saskatoon stand out with connection rates exceeding 85 percent.

Knight also made the case that the merger will result in a more efficient airline that is better able to serve small communities. Currently United serves 112 small airports, with 10 of these added since 2008. Continental serves 73, with a resulting overlap in service at 37 cities.  However, taking advantage of the synergies of a combined network, the merged airline would create 81 unique United destinations and 42 unique Continental destinations for air travelers from small cities.

There were lots of questions following the presentation, including some interesting ones on regional jets and “express carriers” (50 seater-market is not dead, 50 and 70 seat aircraft are important for the success of the merged airline).  Also scope clause (topic of discussion as the two pilot groups move to a single pilots union agreement) and more service to Canada (there may some opportunities).  When asked what airports can do to obtain new or enhanced service, Knight emphasized the importance of the business community in truly supporting the air service.

I give Kevin great credit for not only answering those questions asked in public, but also those asked in private by individual airport directors.  He may not have convinced everyone about the benefits of the merger, but he did gain their respect for coming to the meeting and speaking openly about small community air service.  Job well done!