Merger eventually may bring positives for local airport

While the merger of US Airways and American Airlines makes it the world’s largest airline, the Williamsport Regional Airport likely won’t see any changes from it – for now.

“It’s ‘wait to be seen’ at this point in time,” said Williamsport Municipal Airport Authority Executive Director Tom Hart. “We’ve talked with both US Airways and American Airlines about the merger. Right now, they both told us we’d probably be business as usual but, in the future, they both said it could bode well for us, and they did not elaborate on that.

“We’re looking forward to the merger; it only strengthens both airlines,” he added.

The merger, however, doesn’t guarantee some of the US Airways’ and American Airlines’ employees in Pennsylvania will keep their jobs.

The airlines agreed Tuesday to relinquish some major airport takeoff and landing rights to other carriers as part of a deal to allay concerns that less competition would lead to higher fares. The settlement – if a federal judge approves – would end a fight with the Justice Department and head off a courtroom battle this month. The airline would be called American Airlines.

“We have made, and will continue to make, the case that our employees and facilities here in Pittsburgh are second to none and that there is much to be gained by the airlines if they keep these facilities operating,” said Dennis Davin, an Allegheny County Airport Authority board member who heads the county’s economic development department.

US Airways employs about 1,800 in Pittsburgh, down from more than 12,000 when the airline operated its busiest hub there.

Most of those employees who could be affected work at two facilities. One is a $32 million flight operations center in Moon that opened in 2008 with the help of $4 million in state grants and tax credits employs about 600. About 700 people work at the airport’s heavy maintenance base, which overhauls jets from across US Airways’ system.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker said in March that the local flight operations center, which coordinates the airline’s 3,100 daily flights, likely would close in a merger. An existing, larger one in Dallas, where the combined carrier would be based, would replace it.

“We don’t have anything new to report,” Parker said when asked about the Moon center during a conference call, noting airlines typically put flight centers where their corporate headquarters are. US Airways’ Moon center is an exception.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Brad Penrod, president of the county’s airport authority, said the deal guarantees the number of flights the new American offers at Pittsburgh International Airport will remain at least at the existing level for five years. The airlines offer a combined 56 daily flights to 13 destinations.

“That is a big win for our region,” Fitzgerald said.

Parker didn’t provide a timetable for changes. Airline officials said they hoped to close on the proposed merger by the first half of next month.

“We go to sleep at night knowing that they can’t just willy-nilly decide tomorrow to close the heavy maintenance base, but we do have concerns about the flight operations center,” said Bill Hollowood, president of the International Association of Machinists Local 1976, which represents about 700 workers at the maintenance base and 100 at the flight operations center.

Tom Fontaine, of Trib Total Media, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.