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For DCA, US Airways, American merger likely to mean fewer direct flights

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The merger of US Airways and American Airlines has cleared its final hurdle and will create the largest airline in the United States. The Department of Justice (DOJ) originally objected to this merger but has reached a settlement agreement with the airlines that may decrease direct routes out of Washington-Reagan Airport (DCA). The upshot is that passengers used to flying American will have more options while US Airways loyalists will find fewer direct flights than they have had.

The merger was initially promising for Washington-Reagan Airport (DCA) fliers loyal to those airlines. Between the two of them, there are 290 flights out of the airport and the merger seemed to increase the options available.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the combined airlines will need to reduce their presence by 52 flights—that is, 44 of the flights they currently operate, plus eight slots they lease out to JetBlue.

This essentially reduces the total number of flights to the amount US Airways currently offers. American had a weaker presence at DCA, so this is still growth for American Airlines passengers. Passengers previously flying US Airways will find themselves with fewer options. The combined airline will effectively be the same size as the current US Airways presence at DCA but will be servicing more hubs.

For example, since US Airways does not operate flights out of DCA airport to American Airlines’ biggest hub, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (DFW), the combined airlines will need to maintain American Airlines’ flights to DFW to continue feeding traffic to the rest of American's current network.

Effectively, this means a future of fewer direct flights and more connecting flights out of DCA for current US Airways passengers on the combined airlines.

One less noticed result is the opportunity created for JetBlue fliers. The DOJ settlement gives JetBlue first right to buy the slots they have been leasing and expresses preference for the remaining slots to go to “low cost carrier purchasers approved by the department.” This suggests JetBlue has more room to grow at DCA.

According to Gary Leff, co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, writer at View From the Wing, and frequent DCA traveler, Delta may want to scoop up some gates at DCA as well. Delta recently traded away some DCA gates to US Airways in exchange for some of US Airways’ at La Guardia, and Leff noted Delta may try to get them back.

This settlement may result in an increase of direct routes for Delta and JetBlue passengers and a decrease for US Airways and American Airlines passengers under the combined airlines. However, US Airways and American Airlines have very different footprints on the country. So while direct options will go down for their flyers out of DCA, ultimately their flight options will increase—albeit with connections.

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