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PTI to keep flights after airline merger

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The federal approval Tuesday of US Airways Group Inc.’s $11 billion purchase of American Airlines bodes well for continuing daily nonstop service from Piedmont Triad International Airport to a major Washington airport

However, it could be another four months before PTI officials and Triad passengers know if the airport will keep all four of US Airways’ daily flights to Reagan National. American has no PTI to Reagan service.

The agreement also preserves — for at least three years — Charlotte Douglas International Airport as one of eight U.S. hubs for the merged airline, to be called American Airlines. Airline officials said they expect to keep all eight hubs for longer than the deal requires.

The airlines agreed as a condition of getting U.S. Justice Department approval that they would not end service to Reagan in any city they currently serve.

“The new American has agreed with the U.S. Transportation Department to use all of its Reagan commuter slot pairs for service to these communities,” the airlines said in a joint statement.

The uncertainty about all four US Airways flights to Reagan is that the airlines also agreed to divest a combined 69 paired flight slots at Reagan and New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The slots are expected to be sold or auctioned off by mid-March,

Airline officials said they plan to place a paired-slot premium on continuing flights from its eight hubs.

Andrew Christie Jr., media relations manager for US Airways, said the slot divestiture “will require the new American to discontinue nonstop service from Reagan to some destinations currently served by our independent airlines today. Those cities are not yet known.”

“We were greatly concerned that PTI could be affected by the need to divest slots,” said Kevin Baker, PTI’s executive director. “We appear to be protected now.”

Christie said the airlines plan to announce the service changes in advance of the sale of the slots so that the acquiring airlines “have the opportunity to maintain service to those communities.”

The deal, first announced in February, is now scheduled to close by late December. It still requires the approval of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge because American’s parent company, AMR Corp., is in Chapter 11 protection,

The deal appears to cap a series of mergers that have already eliminated four big U.S. airlines — with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines emerging as survivors — and stoked fear about higher travel prices, particularly in hubs such as Charlotte.

A major concern expressed by six state attorneys general and U.S. Justice officials was the potential for the combined airline to drop or decrease service to small- to medium-sized airports.

Baker said PTI was not alone in having those fears.

“Many airports of our size had been screaming to Justice officials to be squeezed out of Reagan,” he said.

US Airways offers 18 nonstop daily flights from PTI, including nine to Charlotte and five to Philadelphia. American offers three daily nonstops to Dallas and one to Miami.

PTI’s access to both airports became uncertain in 2009 as US Airways and Delta tried to get federal approval for a controversial swap of takeoff and landing rights.

Although PTI held onto daily nonstop services to both airports, it appeared at times that many, if not all, of the flights could have ended. US Airways did give up seven nonstop daily flights from PTI to LaGuardia as part of the approved swap, but Delta created four from PTI to LaGuardia.

Justice officials said in August in a complaint that the transaction as submitted at that time would “entrench the merged airline as the dominant carrier at Reagan National, where it would control 69 percent of take-off and landing slots, thus effectively foreclosing entry or expansion by competing airlines.”

“This agreement has the potential to shift the landscape of the airline industry,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “By guaranteeing a bigger foothold for low-cost carriers at key U.S. airports, this settlement ensures airline passengers will see more competition on nonstop and connecting routes throughout the country.”

The airlines did not provide an update on how the merger would affect their reservation centers in North Carolina.

US Airways has about 850 of its 1,500 global reservation employees at the around-the-clock center off Hanes Mall Boulevard in Winston-Salem. American has 1,200 of its 5,200 global reservation employees at a call center in the Triangle, as well as 2,100 working in its headquarters area and other employees working from home.

When the sale was first announced in February, the union representing local US Airways reservation employees expressed confidence that the combination would solidify the center’s operations in Winston- Salem. American’s reservation employees are not represented by a union.

Vickey Hoots, president of Communications Workers of America Local 3640, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“I feel certain the reservation centers will be rationalized in some way,” said Keith Debbage, a geography professor at UNC Greensboro who is an airline industry expert.

It could be months, if not years, after the sale is completed before it is determined how many employees will be in their combined reservation workgroup and whether they will be represented by a union.

All appears to be setting North Carolina up for another union litmus test in a right-to-work state.

The reservation workgroups will have to choose as part of a 2007 regulatory change to the federal Railway Labor Act. About 700 Winston-Salem employees are represented by the union.

Once the reservation workgroups are merged, legacy American employees could outvote legacy US Airways employees and toss out the union, or US Airways union supporters could convince enough American employees to join to retain representation.