In its seven weeks as a low-cost carrier, Independence Air has battled aggressive price-cutting by competitors, an active thunderstorm season that has forced flight cancellations and, now, a call by the Federal Aviation Administration for airlines to reduce service to Chicago's congested O'Hare International Airport.
The Dulles-based carrier shrugged off the thunderstorms and price cuts. But the FAA's request was quite another matter. Independence executives say any cuts in its schedule would be a blow to their fledgling carrier, which operates 12 daily flights from Dulles to O'Hare. Chicago ranks sixth in frequency of service among the 26 cities that Independence serves, so far, out of Dulles.
The FAA has summoned airline executives to a meeting tomorrow in Washington to negotiate schedule cuts at O'Hare, which in May had a record 14,500 late flights, causing passengers to miss thousands of connections. The FAA told airlines last week it may impose emergency restrictions if they don't voluntarily cut service at the nation's busiest airport.
Independence's senior vice president of marketing, Eric I. Nordling, said he already has told FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey that big carriers such as American Airlines and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines are to blame for the delays. American and United each operate hundreds of daily flights at O'Hare.
Nordling said he told the FAA chief that the airline originally had planned 16 flights a day into O'Hare. "Recognizing that it is a congested airport we elected to modify the business plan and reduce it to 12 flights," he said. "So we already have cut back."
American and United executives say carriers such as Independence, which have added peak-hours flights at O'Hare this summer, are the culprits.
In response to previous FAA requests, American and United eliminated, or shifted to non-peak hours, 7.5 percent of their O'Hare flights this year. American said it scratched 16 flights. United said it cut about 25.
"After we both cut our flights, we started to see improvements in our on-time performance" at O'Hare, said Jeff Green, a United spokesman. "Then Independence and other airlines came in and started adding flights" and congestion worsened.
American has brought its concerns about Independence directly to the FAA, said Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for the airline.
"While American and United have reduced schedules it's inappropriate and counterproductive to have Independence Air come in behind us," introducing flights during peak hours, from noon to 8 p.m., she said.
United, American and Independence representatives declined to say what schedule cuts, if any, they will offer the FAA at tomorrow's meeting.
Independence's Nordling said there's a subplot to this maneuvering. Behemoths like American and United would like nothing better than to drive Independence out of O'Hare, he suggested.
Independence flies 50-seat regional jets to 27 cities, with fares to Chicago as low as $69 one-way. By Sept. 1, Independence plans to operate in 35 markets with 600 daily flights to and from Dulles. Independence is owned by Atlantic Coast Airlines Holdings Inc., which for 15 years operated regional jet service for United and Delta Air Lines. "This is kind of thinly veiled," Nordling said. "It's: Oh, let's get the low-fare guy out."
United and American say that simply isn't so.
"We welcome competition from Independence Air," United spokesman Green said. "Competition is good for our customers." United's fares have dropped as low as $79 one-way from Dulles to O'Hare.
Independence executives were not caught off guard by the FAA's request last week to cut flights at O'Hare.
On April 21, FAA administrator Blakey encouraged all domestic airlines to "carefully review current or planned flights [to O'Hare] during these peak hours and to consider operating flights during other hours or at alternative airports."
On May 17, Nordling said, he spoke directly with Blakey, who asked the airline to cut its planned flights.
Independence declined to do so, asserting that the larger carriers have been ratcheting up service in recent years. This summer, O'Hare is handling upward of 3,000 takeoffs and landings every day, compared with about 2,500 in 2000, according to the FAA.
Two days after Nordling's conversation with Blakey, Independence announced it would begin service to O'Hare on June 16, the day the airline made its debut.
That brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Ill.), whose district includes parts of Chicago and its southwestern suburbs. Independence's service to O'Hare "is not only unfair to those airlines who made the schedule cuts, but . . . also adds delays during the busy summer months," he said on the House floor.
Rick DeLisi, a spokesman for Independence, called Lipinski's comments anticompetitive.
"Clearly, anyone who is suggesting that it is not a good idea to have more low-fare flights at Chicago and to have a more competitive environment that serves customers better is not interested in the same things that the public is," he said.