Senators pepper airline officials about DC-to-district flights

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Lawmakers used their audience with officials from both airlines on Wednesday to argue that slots that are currently being used for flights to airports in their districts should continue under the potential merged airline.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) made the case for "state capitol to national capitol flights" like the ones that fly to Little Rock in his home state, "which to me make sense," he said.

By contrast, Pryor said of the state capitol of Georgia, "people can catch a flight every hour to Atlanta."

U.S. Airways and American Airlines announced their plans to merge in an $11 billion deal that was announced in February. The companies said they needed to combine forces to compete with other airlines that have merged in recent years, such as Delta and Northwest and United and Continental airlines, as well as Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways.

Lawmakers have been critical of the fallout from those previous mergers, which they say has decrease competition and caused reductions in flight service to smaller airports in their home districts.
 
Officials from U.S. Airways and American put a positive face on their merger on Wednesday, telling lawmakers that the move would create a "complimentary" airline with little flight eliminations because their current routes do not often overlap. 

"This merger is good news for everyone except our competitors," American Air Vice President Gary Kennedy told the committee.

U.S. Airways CEO Doug Parker, who has been tapped to run the potential combined airline, added that the merger would "create the world's best airline through a combination that will be good for competition, consumers and choice." 

Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA) Director Charlie Leocha strongly disagreed, arguing that not only would flight service be reduced if the U.S. Airways-American Airlines merger was approved, but he also said current employees of the companies would be in endanger of losing their jobs.

"Somebody's going to lose their job," Leocha said. "That's the way mergers work. The whole reason for a merger is combine operations and throw somebody out of work."

Officials from the Obama administration who are reviewing the merger request sought to referee the disputes.

Government Accountability Officer (GAO) Director of Civil Aviation Issues Gerald Dillingham told lawmakers they would have to wait and see what would happen if U.S. Airways and American became one airline.

"There's a lot of conjecture, but we won't know until it functions as a new airline," Dillingham said.

Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Susan Kurland said the Obama administration was trying to balance the concerns that were raised by both the lawmakers and the airline officials.

"Consumers benefit from having a financially healthy [airline] industry, however the consolidation and capacity cuts that are part of the industry's restructuring efforts raise questions about their effect on consumers in the short and long-term," Kurland said.

Questions about the results of past airline mergers have already been answered for some lawmakers on the Senate's transportation Committee, including the panel's chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)."

"The advantages of previous consolidations have not yet been passed on to consumers," Rockefeller said in a statement. They are facing higher fares, crowded and often smaller, less comfortable planes, and fees for every conceivable service. 

"The industry has become profitable and devised new revenue sources, yet it still ranks at the bottom of customer satisfaction services," Rockefeller continued. "Passengers who pay the taxes to run the aviation system deserve far better service than they are currently receiving."   


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