A key senator Tuesday began a legislative effort to boost air service in the Northeast and other parts of the country, but his bill was met with catcalls from many sides.
The bill's reception at a Senate hearing seemed to indicate that the Senate, at least, is a long way from dealing with a problem that Buffalo-area leaders see as crucial to the area's future.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, introduced the bill, which would free up the major airlines' choke-hold on business at major airports in New York, Washington and Chicago, and force federal officials to respond quickly to complaints of predatory behavior against the major airlines.
Depending on whom you believe, though, the bill would either not go far enough to improve the Northeast's air service, or it would destroy whatever service the region still has.
Charles Goodwin, vice president of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, noted that Buffalo has the sixth-highest air fares in the country and that Rochester ranks eighth. Fares are so out of line, he said, that the problem cannot be solved with the mere tinkering that McCain's bill proposes.
Airlines are charging up to $1.48 per mile on flights out of Rochester, he said, when they can turn a profit at between 10 and 12 cents per mile. Given that fact, "perhaps we should look at possibly limiting the amount of profit airlines can make on their flights," Goodwin said.
Goodwin's comments prompted gasps from the crowd at the hearing and an angry retort from Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., who called it "an affront to the good old American way."
Shortly afterward, a spokesman for the airline that dominates air service in Rochester and Buffalo -- US Airways -- steered clear of responding to Goodwin and merely said that McCain's bill jeopardizes the airline's service in mid-sized and smaller markets.
Under McCain's bill, up to 10 percent of the "slots" that current airlines hold at the four congested big airports would be freed up and given to airlines that are new to those markets. That, McCain argued, would introduce price competition to LaGuardia, Kennedy, Washington National and Chicago's O'Hare airports -- and allow discount carriers to move into other northeastern markets.
But US Airways, the Northeast's dominant carrier, argued that the bill would have precisely the opposite effect.
"US Airways is unique in its commitment to service smaller markets," said Lawrence M. Nagin, executive vice president and general counsel at the airline. "If Congress confiscates some of US Airways' slots at National and LaGuardia, we will be forced to eliminate some of our service to smaller communities -- the very type of service that the proposed bill seeks to increase."
He also noted that US Airways is in the process of creating a separate, low-cost airline that is intended to compete with Southwest Airlines, Delta Express and other airlines that northeastern cities are trying to lure to boost price competition.