Airline executives and a consumer advocate sparred over how the proposed merger of US Airways and American Airlines would affect small communities and competition at a hearing held by a US Senate subcommittee on 19 June.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) also submitted a written report to the committee outlining details of the merger and the carriers' route overlap.
During the hearing, lawmakers expressed concern that the merger would lead to less competition and fewer flights at small and medium-sized cities, particularly those served by Tempe, Arizona-based US Airways out of its hub at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport.
They fear that regulators may require the combined carrier to divest slots at the airport, which would lead the merged airline to eliminate less profitable routes like those to smaller communities served by commuter aircraft.
If combined, US Airways and American Airlines would control 70% of National airport's slots.
But Doug Parker, chief executive of US Airways, tells lawmakers that merging the carriers will bring more flight choices and better service to customers, as well as an improved working environment for employees.
Parker, who has also been chosen to lead the combined carrier, says a merger will create a "more competitive global airline" that will remain committed to small and medium-sized cities.
A combined carrier might even increase service to such airports "where appropriate", adds Parker.
But if regulators require the merged airline to divest slots, the airline might have no choice but to eliminate flights to smaller communities as it concentrates resources on its most-profitable routes.
Parker also predicts that airlines that pick up freed slots will not use them to serve small communities.
Charlie Leocha, director of the nonprofit group Consumer Travel Alliance, tells senators that the merger will likely result in lost jobs at many airports and less choice for customers.
"Competition will be clobbered," says Leocha, noting that the two airlines compete with connecting or direct flights between more than 1,100 city pairs.
Leocha's numbers mesh with the GAO report, issued to the committee on 19 June. Although the two carriers overlap on only 12 nonstop routes, thousands of connecting routes would be affected, the report says.
Specifically, the merger would result in the loss of one "effective competitor" in 1,665 city pairs affecting more than 53 million passengers, according to the GAO.
Leocha adds that workers could lose their jobs at airports in cities like Boston, Hartford, Seattle, Minneapolis and others where US Airways and American compete on connecting routes. A merged carrier would need less manpower at such airports, he warns.
"These are significant non-hub airports that could be losers in this operation," Leocha says. "Every senator here will see his or her state lose competitive service."
He also brought up the recent decision by the four US legacy carriers to raise change fees to $200 from $150. United was the first to roll out the higher fee, but the other carriers quickly matched.
With less competition, major airlines are even more likely to make pricing decisions in unison, predicts Leocha.
"We the passengers have no power to even vote with our wallets when the legacy airlines raise their fees in concert like that," he says.