Fear not, senators (and schedulers). The all-important commuter flights from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to smaller airports will continue once American Airlines and U.S. Airways merge.
There may be some changes to which airports are served by the smaller aircraft sometimes called "puddle jumpers" and on what schedule, however.
A larger agreement was announced Tuesday to settle antitrust action involving the Justice Department and several states over the long-proposed merger of the two airlines. But another deal between the airlines and the Department of Transportation will protect the smaller flights that are a fixture at DCA.
"In addition to maintaining competition, it is imperative that any airline merger serves the broader interest of the traveling public. This is at the core of DOT's mission," the agreement said. "To protect this compelling interest, US Airways and AMR agree to maintain service to Medium, Small and Non-hub airports from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) in accordance with the terms set out in this Agreement."
The broader deal with the Justice Department will result in the combined airline shedding 104 slots at Reagan. Long-distance flights to and from the airport on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River have long been tightly controlled by Congress, a frequent point of dispute during Federal Aviation Administration authorization debates.
"By divesting all of the 104 air carrier slots that American Airlines owns today at Reagan National, the settlement will allow JetBlue to keep competing with the slots it currently subleases from American and further expands competition by placing the other 88 slots in the hands of low cost carriers," Assistant Attorney General William J. Baer said Tuesday. "Thus, the settlement not just prevents the increased dominance of US Airways at Reagan National, it provides for expanded competition at this airport."
Those 104 slots are a separate matter from the issue with the smaller aircraft.
Frequent fliers are familiar with the abundance of small planes that regional carriers — many doing business as "US Airways Express" — fly in and out of Reagan to a wide array of airports, with passengers taking shuttle buses out onto the tarmac to meet the small planes. Under the deal, it appears that those flights will be protected.
"The existing pattern of service at DCA reflects a delicate balance of federal, state and local interests — endorsed to a significant extent by Congress," the side agreement said. "DOT asserts that preserving nonstop service to a range of destinations from DCA, including Medium, Small, and Non-hub airports, is part of DOT's statutory mission and the Administration’s transportation policy."
Under the terms of the deal, which is in effect for five years, the Transportation Department doesn't require the new merged airline to fly to specific smaller airports. However, it does require the new American to provide information about the service being provided when requested.
The side agreement, along with a lengthy list of eligible airports, is posted here.