American Comes to Charlotte, the Heart and Soul of US Airways

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- From the day Stephen Wolf selected the name US Airways in 1996, Charlotte Douglas International Airport has been the heart and soul of the airline.

So the airport celebration Monday of the deal that will put an end to the name, and to the airport's primacy, was bittersweet.

More sweet than bitter, though, because now the airport built by Jerry Orr over the past four decades seems destined to survive indefinitely as one of just two major air transportation hubs in the southeastern United States, home to 80 million people. 

The deal combines US Airways with American, under the American name and the new stock symbol AAL. In Dallas on Monday, CEO Doug Parker, formerly CEO of America West and then of US Airways, and now CEO of American, rang the opening bell for Nasdaq. Dallas is the largest hub; Charlotte is second.

The day's bitter aspect was the awareness of what will be lost. Sometime in 2014 or 2015, the US Airways name will disappear.

Wolf, then CEO, chose the name to replace "USAir," hoping to recognize the integration of Piedmont and US Air under a classier brand name that resembled British Airways, at around the time that Charlotte began to eclipse Pittsburgh as the airline's biggest hub. US Airways is the last surviving pre-deregulation airline, other than big three American, Delta (DAL) and United (UAL) plus Southwest (LUV).

Additionally, Orr is currently airport director in name only, presiding over an airport authority that so far has been out-maneuvered in an effort to take over airport oversight.  If the authority fails, Orr's career will become collateral damage in a battle between Charlotte Democrats and Raleigh Republicans for control of the airport and its hundreds of millions of dollars in annual cash flow. The politicians' singular focus on power trumped any awareness that Orr somehow built a world-class airport in a medium-sized southern city.

Without vast success in Charlotte, US Airways would have been a far less desirable merger partner. So Monday was Orr's day too.

The worst threat that ever faced Charlotte Douglas was Parker's 2006 effort to merge US Airways with Delta , which would have resulted in the Atlanta and Charlotte hubs being operated by a single carrier, leading inevitably to downsizing in Charlotte. The effort was the biggest misstep in Parker's aviation career. It was opposed by nearly everybody and it failed dramatically. But the threat that Delta and US Airways might one day try again to merge was not eliminated until US Airways merged with American.

In looking at the future of the Charlotte hub, people sometimes raise the specter of hubs such as Memphis and St. Louis that were lost to mergers, or hubs like Dayton and Pittsburgh and Raleigh-Durham that were lost to reality, or hubs like Cleveland that limp along, or hubs like Phoenix that face an uncertain future. The suggestion is that something bad could happen to Charlotte.

But the threat seems remote. At a media event on Monday, Terri Pope, US Airways/American vice president for Charlotte Douglas, said the airline's daily departures are already set to rise from 640 today to 700 over the next few months. Some of the added flights reflect merger synergies, Pope said. With 700 daily departures, Charlotte would likely become the world's third-largest single airline hub, behind Delta in Atlanta and American in Dallas but no longer behind United in Houston.

Pope, who has overseen the Charlotte hub since 2001, has presided over vast growth, much of it reflecting benefits from mergers, as well as from efficient airport management, hers as well as Orr's. She has been involved in four mergers starting in 1987, when USAir bought PSA and then merged with Piedmont. Coming out of bankruptcy in 2005, it merged with America West. Eight years later, it merges with American. "I've had experience in merging airlines," she said.

Pope first worked at Charlotte Douglas when she was brought in from Boston to help implement the Piedmont merger. She worked to coordinate changes in reservations including policies involving ticketing and gate and curbside procedures -- the sort of details that form the guts of an airline's operations. The transition took two years. She left temporarily to be station manager in West Palm Beach, Fla.

When the America West team took over in 2005, "It was such a volatile time, coming out of bankruptcy," Pope said. "Most carriers were not financially stable then; it was a very concerning time for all of our employees. I don't think I would have imagined in my wildest dreams that we would (merge) American with US Airways."

Orr discounted on Monday the suggestion that he deserves any credit for the American merger, saying, "I worked at the airport for 38 years, but now I don't. History will have to determine (my) legacy."

But Orr acknowledged that "things could have gone differently. You always have to believe that no matter what happens, you can make something good of it. I'm happy for Doug Parker. I think the merger's a good thing for him and for Charlotte. The merger shows the value of patience and of looking ahead."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

To contact this writer, click here.

Follow @tedreednc



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