Transport Airlines

Sarasota Fights to Keep Reagan National Flight as Slot Sales Loom

Dec 10, 2013 11:40 am

Skift Take

Until the slots sales are settled, the battle to save the lone direct flight from Sarasota-Bradenton to Reagan National will be played out at smaller communities and airports across the country.

— Dennis Schaal

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Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, is drumming up support to keep Sarasota-Bradenton from losing its lone nonstop flight to Reagan National Airport since Monday’s merger of US Airways with American Airlines.

American and US Airways new company, American Airlines Group, began trading on NASDAQ Monday after a brief legal battle, including the Supreme Court rejecting a last-minute attempt to block the deal over the weekend, signaling the start of the new airline company.

“It’s critically important,” Buchanan said in front of Gate B1 during a press conference Monday at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. “There are a lot of people that work in Washington that live here. A lot of people, including quite a few members of Congress who live in our community.”

Sarasota-Bradenton’s lone nonstop flight to Washington flies to Reagan via US Airways, and Buchanan and SRQ airport officials want that slot preserved. Ironically, the nonstop flight was canceled Monday because of snow and ice in Washington.

Buchanan said he wrote letters to the chairman of American Airlines and US Airways, the House Transportation Committee and regulators in Washington to keep the Sarasota flight.

“I feel very confident that we will be successful, but like anybody that’s been in business or in life knows, nothing’s done until it’s done so we’re going to fight to keep this flight,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said he hopes to find out by Christmas from American whether the flight will stay.

The merger means the air carrier is now the largest in the United States and to avoid monopoly concerns, the Justice Department settlement with the airline includes that it would have to surrender landing rights and gates at major airports across the United States, including Washington’s Reagan National Airport. An agreement that has ripple effects down to Sarasota-Bradenton because American would control 69 percent of the slots at Reagan, forcing a sell-off of slots.

The Department of Justice determined that JetBlue would keep 16 slots at Reagan that it received in a swap with American for spots at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, with 52 slots up for grabs.

“The problem with Reagan airport is that it’s a single runway, and they’re very limited in the number of slots they can have. They can only do 30 operations in an hour — that’s 15 flights,” said Jack Rynerson, chairman of the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority.

Sarasota-Bradenton could be one of the slots. American agreed to keep 75 percent of the 52 commuter slots for five years for small airports like SRQ while 25 percent are to be kept for medium or large hubs like Tampa. The daily nonstop flight departs SRQ’s Gate B1 at 12:45 p.m. and arrives at 3:09 p.m., and is a successful one.

The nonstop flights are 89 percent full, said Mark Stuckey, vice president of special projects and development at SRQ, and are flying 80-passenger planes during the peak season and 50 passengers a day during the summer.

Flights to Washington via US Airways are considered commuter flights and usually operated by a regional affiliate like PSA Airlines, Mesa Airlines or Republic Airlines doing business as US Airways Express. American’s planes are larger, seating more than 100, and airport officials are unsure of the guidelines for plane size for commuter flights, and if an American plane could qualify.

“Now what’s being built is 104-seaters, and that’s the new size, and that wouldn’t surprise me,” Rynerson said.

If the slot, which is owned by the airline and not the airport, is lost, it sets off a series of uncertain events. Airport officials know that a bidding process would take place, but it’s unclear from the federal government how that process might work.

The Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority actually supported the merger and sent a letter to Attorney General Pam Bondi asking her to reconsider her position. The authority and SRQ’s CEO Frederick “Rick” Piccolo thought the merger would help SRQ land service with American to Miami and Dallas, but said he knew losing Reagan would be a possibility.

“We had a good working relationships with US Airways forever, and we think they’re on track. We just keep asking,” Rynerson said.

SRQ has options to recover a Washington flight, but the destiny is controlled by the airlines.

Piccolo previously told the Herald the airport preferred preserving its DCA slot with the new American, otherwise he hoped another airline that flies at SRQ like JetBlue or Delta would be able to acquire the slot to maintain nonstop service.

Delta offers connecting flights in the Washington area to both Dulles International Airport and Reagan, but travelers have to stop in Atlanta for a layover and switch planes. The middle ground between a connecting and nonstop flight would be a direct flight, which would stop briefly at an airport like Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International, but passengers wouldn’t have to switch planes. Other flights to Reagan from US Airways stop through Charlotte.

The Department of Justice settlement left an option to allow a carrier like JetBlue to lease a slot back to American for 180 days with the option for extensions, providing a small possibility there.

Flights to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, about 30 miles away from Capitol Hill, could be an option as the airport will have a new Metrorail line connecting the airport to the District of Columbia, but driving is a concern with commutes easily turning into a two-hour nightmare, Buchanan acknowledged. The same goes for Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is 30 miles north.

Sarasota-Bradenton is also fighting another geographic fight, airport officials acknowledged. Having major airports in Tampa and Fort Myers offering similar service squeezes out SRQ, much like when Southwest took over AirTran, subsequently pulling out of SRQlast year in favor of the other two airports. That took about 240,000 passengers a year from SRQ.

“We’re caught in the middle like a sandwich, but this is a critically important flight to us and we hope to be getting a decision shortly,” Buchanan said.

The airport is managing to recover from AirTran’s departure with added flights to New York and Chicago thanks to JetBlue, Delta and United, seeing an increase of 8.4 percent in passengers during the last three months. Overall airport traffic is down 8.4 percent for the year.

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