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Losing Regional Jet Service

I’ve heard talk from airport and airline staff that our local airport, U of I Willard, as well as the rest of downstate Illinois could lose its regional jet service.

Both American in Champaign and United in Bloomington have stated (albeit not pubicly) that they may be forced to end RJ service downstate as a cost cutting measure. American has already cut back service, reducing the number of flights downstate. It seems maybe this is not the end of the cuts.

I dismissed these stories as unlikely until I read the following posted in today’s Washington Post.

Losing jet service would be a terrible economic consequence for downstate Illinois, as well as all non-hub cities around the country that lose their RJ service.

Here is the article:

Feeling Airlines’ Pain, Airports Seek Help in D.C.

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008; D01

Airline passengers have long traveled the United States on a hub-and-spoke system, an ever-expanding air service network connecting travelers from small communities to big-city airports.

Now some of the spokes — the smaller airports — are feeling the pressure of higher oil costs as airlines pull routes and raise prices. That worry brought dozens of airport directors to Washington this week for hastily called meetings of the American Association of Airport Executives. They wanted to put together a battle plan.

They had to “create drama” to make themselves heard, said Klaasje Nairne, airport manager in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “We need to emphasize that this is really not unique to our town.”

Late last month, she got a call from regional carrier American Eagle, a sister company of American Airlines. The airline was close to announcing that it would end service at the airport and close a major maintenance base. The action represented a 38 percent cut in plane service and a personnel cut of at least 10 percent at the airport. “I couldn’t believe it,” Nairne said. “I had to find a place to sit down.”

After years of steady growth, service cuts planned for this fall by major airlines could blow a hole in the nation’s commercial air transportation system, according to the airport managers. Major airlines have announced cuts that could represent 10 to 20 percent loss in air service by the end of the year. Airlines have announced cuts of 30,000 employees this year and could rack up losses of $7 billion to $13 billion, according to industry lobbyists.

There was no shortage of politicians and officials ready to meet with the executives — and offer to enlist the airports in fighting the energy wars already underway on Capitol Hill.

Thursday, the group heard a speech by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, who asked for support for Republican initiatives to increase domestic oil production.

Later, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the aviation subcommittee, argued that the executives should back legislation to tighten regulatory scrutiny aimed at curbing oil-price speculation.

Already, the Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s lobbying arm, has been building pressure on Congress to take on the speculation fight. On Thursday, airlines sent out millions of e-mails to frequent fliers asking them to contact members of Congress to act on the issues.

The ATA says that 100 cities this year could lose all commercial air service and that as many as 200 could lose service next year. Some of the cities that have lost service include Hot Springs, Ark.; Athens, Ga.; Trenton, N.J.; Santa Fe, N.M., and Youngstown, Ohio.

To cope with the downturn, airport directors say they are halting expansion projects, putting a freeze on hiring and trying to preserve what they’ve got.

In Asheville, N.C., airport director David Edwards said he’s preparing for a 10 to 15 percent drop in passenger traffic this year, to about 250,000 passengers a year — the equivalent of passenger levels from five years ago. The airport, he said, has escaped deep service cuts, but high ticket prices are taking a toll.

“Fare increases are discouraging traffic,” Edwards said. Decreased traffic from higher fares will eventually lead airlines to cut more flights, he said.

Edwards said he’s holding back on a project to develop 28 acres on the airport site. In the past two years, $38 million has been invested in the airport.

At North Carolina’s Wilmington International Airport, director Jon Rosborough has seen service to Philadelphia cut back to two days a week from seven. He fears that more will come if oil prices stay high. “I expect all of us to be hit,” he said. His airport has rolled out a Reduction in Service Plan of Action to study the impact on the airport of cuts in airline service. The airport might shift full-time employees to part-time status, freeze hiring and explore offering early retirement packages.

“We adopted our budget earlier this year, and we were planning for a slight increase,” Edwards said. “Now we are stepping back.”

At Roanoke Regional Airport, higher ticket prices have led to fewer travelers. In May, traffic dropped 15 percent, according to Sherry Wallace, manager for marketing and air service development at the airport. She said Delta has notified the airport that it is ending its three-flights-a-day service to Cincinnati.

“Cincinnati might not be the last cutback we see,” she said. “It’s my job to get air service, not lose it.”

Bigger airports are not immune. American Airlines has made steep cuts in service at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, one of the busiest in the country.

In Cleveland, Continental announced flight cuts for September that end service to 24 cities, largely dismantling a major expansion project that would have called for a 40 percent increase in service from Hopkins International Airport. Ricky Smith, director of the Cleveland airport system, said he’s been able to swallow the cuts, partly with the knowledge that the ax fell harder at airports in Newark and Houston.

“We’re not panicking,” he said, “but there is a sense of urgency.”

Smith sees more cuts if oil prices stay high. “At that point, they will be cutting bone — eliminating service that our passengers are relying on,” he said.

By yesterday, the airport executives had engaged politicians, vented about their problems, formed committees, issued a fat news release — and flown home.