A merger, while by no means a certainty, is “getting closer,” says Michael Miller, vice president of strategy for the American Aviation Institute, a Washington-based think tank. And both the critics and the supporters make a valid point, he adds. “Consumers will benefit because their frequent-flier miles will be applicable to a much larger network, with more diverse offerings,” he says. “But as with other mergers, flights will be cut and competition will wane. This will mean higher prices for the average flier. But a more stable airline industry also will mean more reliable travel and less turmoil and bankruptcy.”
So what will happen next, and what should you do about it? It depends on which airline you’re flying. US Airways customers will see little, if any, change in the near term, even if the merger moves forward. American Airlines customers will continue to experience the same turmoil as before, including added and dropped routes, new policies and program changes, as the carrier struggles to right itself after exiting bankruptcy.
In the long term, if the airlines decide to combine, things could get dicey, predicts Northwestern’s Gellman. “You’d have higher prices and less innovation,” he says. And entire hubs could eventually disappear. A combined American-US Airways might have to choose between closing its Philadelphia and New York hub — Gellman says it would probably shut down Philadelphia — and it would reduce the size of its operations in Phoenix, where US Airways is now based. “American and US Airways are better off alone,” he adds.
Doug Parker, chief executive of US Airways, would probably beg to differ. In a speech at the National Press Club last summer, he vigorously defended his company’s desire to merge, arguing that customers would be among its biggest beneficiaries. “Customers will gain more flight options at better times, to more places,” he says. “And whenever two airlines combine, they open the communities that they serve to many more travelers.”
Whether such an airline will also offer the kind of customer service that passengers expect is a question some air travelers hope they’ll never have to answer.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.