Thursday, 8 November 2007

Parking in a Pile: US Airways CEO Faces the Specter of Common Sense

Every now and then, when I emerge from my home office in Lancaster County, outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I catch a whiff of the Dairy Farm down the road. It’s a powerful scent, but it’s no longer entirely unpleasant. My tolerance for shit, it seems, has increased.

Why then did I find yesterday’s joint press conference of Senator Arlen Specter and US Airways CEO Doug Parker so uncomfortable to watch? Perhaps it’s because a 77-year lawmaker, who has battled a brain tumor, bypass heart surgery and Hodgen’s Disease, with somewhat halting speech was able to back Parker into a corner, and make his carefully tailored explanation for why US Airways is threatening to withdraw plans for Philadelphia-Beijing service seem, well, foul-smelling.

US Airways’ threat, by the way, is being made in response to Delta Air Lines' move next week from Philadelphia’s Terminal E to Terminal A-East, which will make more room for Southwest Airlines at Terminal E, and strip US Airways of three of 16 widebody gates at the international concourse.

It’s a deal struck by Philadelphia a couple of years ago when US Airways was floundering under its second Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, and made sense for the airport at the time, Parker admits. Now-profitable, the dominant carrier at Philadelphia doesn't quite see the sense anymore. In addition to its warning about Beijing, the carrier says it may have to shrink its entire international operation at Philly, and divert service to its Charlotte and Phoenix hubs.

The most-talked-about moment of the press conference came when Specter – still furious over US Airways’ planned draw-down at Pittsburgh – responded to the carrier's new Phillly threat by saying: “In talking to Mr Parker, I said to him, and I don’t use this word lightly, it sounds like extortion.”

But for me, things turned most interesting at the end.

Asked repeatedly by Specter if US Airways – which claims to have a bevy of solutions to solve the gate problem - has ever in fact offered to give up two or three of its total 67 domestic gates to facilitate Delta’s plans, Parker hemmed and hawed and finally said: “I don’t know that we said that specifically because there are other airlines flying less domestic than we do.”

Specter retorted: “You don’t know. That’s the answer.”

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