Recent actions by Texas International Airlines, the same airline folks that brought the public "peanuts" fares, have raised speculation of plans for new lower-fare competition to the heavily traveled Eastern Airlines Shuttle between Washington and New York.
Although they decline to comment on their specific intentions, officials of the Houston-based airline stunned the industry last week when they put in a bid for the use of 44 slots a day at Washington National Airport and 70 a day at New York's LaGuardia Airport. A slot in industry parlance is an allowable movement of a plane -- either a takeoff or a landing.
Because the slots are limited at both airports, Texas International's request has thrown the industry, and especially the airline scheduling committees that assign the slots, into a tizzy.
Only 10 airlines operated out of National for years, but the opportunities spurred by airline deregulation has greatly increased the number of airlines seeking slots at both National and LaGuardia. This year so far, a total of 22 airlines are seeking 762 slots a day at National, while only 640 slots per day are available.
The airlines seeking slots are prohibited from indicating to the scheduling committees their proposed destinations -- so that prospective competitors won't be kept out by the incumbents -- and Texas International officials have refused to divulge their plans.
But some airline observers believe the aggressive managers of Texas International may well have their eye on new services in the lucrative Washington-New York corridor, possibly to be operated by a separate subsidiary of Texas Air Corp., the holding company that owns Texas International.
Texas International's application comes at a time when the heavily traveled route is almost a monopoly market held by Eastern Airlines. American Airlines, which used to operate in competition with Eastern's shuttle, is down to just three roundtrips a day.
One of the great selling points of the Eastern shuttle is its convenience -- no reservation has to be made, a passenger just has to show up before flight time to be guaranteed a seat. Any new competition almost necessarily would have to equal the shuttle service with flights every hour, taking 32 slots a day, or undercut considerably the $60 one-way fare being charged by Eastern to make a dent in their market.
Texas International, an aggressive airline which originated the half-fare "peanuts" flights, might just see an opportunity to do that. Run by Frank Lorenzo, the small airline took on "the big boys" before, when it began to acquire stock in the much larger National Airlines several years ago. While in the end it didn't acquire the airline, it did make a lot of money in the process.
When the holding company was formed in June, it acquired about $60 million in cash, partly the proceeds from the sale of their National Airlines stock to Pan American World Airways. In addition, the Texas-based airline has on order about 20 DC9 airplanes -- deliveries start this fall -- that would be well suited to East Coast markets.
Also, TAC has hired Kenneth T. Carlson away from Midway Airlines, where he was vice president of marketing, as a vice president and stationed him in New York. And, Neal F. Meehan, who was a corporate officer at TI, has been made a senior vice president of the holding company with unspecified duties.
The slot determinations are made by representatives of all the airlines that operate out of the airport, according to Walter Coleman, director of the airline scheduling committees reservations center. The committees normally meet twice a year to fix slot allocations for the periods beginning when the airlines have their major schedule changes -- the beginning and end of daylight savings time.
Each airline makes its requests and the committees meet until they decide who gets what and when. The National and LaGuardia committees failed to agree during the last meeting and are recessed until the week of Aug. 18, when they will try again. (Representatives of airlines operating out of the other two slot-limited airports -- Chicago's O'Hare International and New York's Kennedy International -- did work out slot agreements.)
Based on reports of the last meetings, no one thinks it will be easy for the airlines to reach agreement on National and LaGuardia.
Airline representatives were very unhappy -- to say the least -- about Texas International's request, on top of the requests of other airlines to increase their slot allocations. The carrier currently operating with the highest level of slots at National is Eastern Airlines with 130, followed by USAir with 84 and Piedmont with 64.