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Emerging Shape of America’s Powerport – DCA’s Destiantions Set To Change

02/22/2014

Reagan Washington National (DCA) is the supreme powerport for America’s high and mighty. A scant four miles from downtown Washington, DC, Congress even has its own private parking lot at the airport.

Lobbyists love the airport; powerbrokers revel in it.

DCA’s undergoing a major shakeup in the wake of the new American Airlines’ divestiture of 104 valuable takeoff and landing slots at the airport. The move was part of the deal in which the government approved the American/US Airways merger.

Those slots went to the highest bidder. Low-fare Southwest gets 54 slots, equating to 27 daily flights. Low-fare/high-touch JetBlue gets 24 slots, allowing it to field an additional dozen flights from DCA. Finally, similarly low-fare/high-frills Virgin America picked up eight slots, allowing it to loft four more daily departures.

Ultra-low-fare, unprecedently “unbundled” Spirit Airlines came up short, failing to get any new Reagan National slots. In a conference call to talk about financial results Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said, “We put in a bid that we thought could keep our target margin returns in place, and we did not win.”

Spirit makes a profit by packing its Airbus twinjets with more seats than the competition and charging extra for virtually everything. Consider: water costs USD$3. It’s not what you’d call a “service-intensive” carrier.

By contrast, JetBlue and Virgin America are precisely that, and Southwest is highly regarded. The captains of politics and commerce who frequent Reagan National are a lot more accustomed to the kind of service JetBlue, Virgin, and Southwest offer than they are Spirit’s.

With one exception – the November 2 launch of nonstop DCA – Dallas Love Field flights – Southwest hasn’t announced its new routes from Reagan. JetBlue says it “plans to introduce nonstop service to cities it does not currently serve from DCA.” Similarly, no immediate word yet on what cities Virgin America will serve from the close-in airport.

This much is all but assured: you won’t see Southwest, Virgin America and JetBlue re-tracing the smaller routes American/US Airways once operated from DCA. Many were flown with regional jets. The new guys are likely to fly to larger cities, with more profit potential.

The reshuffle of routes from Reagan very likely means Augusta, Georgia; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Fort Walton Beach, Florida; Islip, New York; Jacksonville, North Carolina; Little Rock, Arkansas; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Nassau, Bahamas; Pensacola, Florida; San Diego, California; Savannah, Georgia; and Wilmington, North Carolina will be left twisting in the wind when it comes to nonstop flights to DCA.

Bigger cities appear to be the big winners in the re-shuffle. The losers are flyers who have no problem in braving Sprit’s legroom- deficient seating and pay-for-extras policy in exchange for some of the lowest pure airfares on the planet.

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