The war of the codependents

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Michael FabeyAll of this bickering and battling between airlines and airports over taxes, funding and other money schemes reminds me of the warfare my brother and I engaged in when we were kids.

We'd fight over which television show to watch or what dessert to eat, and my dad, a former Marine who believed all should be punished for the sins of one, simply put an end to the sniping by declaring, "That's it! No one gets to watch or eat anything."

If airlines and airports don't watch themselves, that's what they'll wind up with too: nothing.

Airlines complain that airports are spending too much money on unnecessary projects and rely too much on federal funding, passenger taxes and landing or rental fees instead of tightening their belts during the recession.

Airports want to know where the carriers get off telling airport managers to get by with less. They complain that for years, airlines have been holding gates and facilities hostage to guarantee service while they play musical destination cities, depending on where demand arises.

Further, airport managers point out, airlines have been sprucing up their own lounges and reconfiguring planes to make them more appealing to passengers, so carrier executives ought to keep their mouths shut about how to spend money during tough economic times.

Here's my unsolicited advice to both combatants: Open your eyes; you're fighting on the same side.

You are both trying to win the hearts and minds -- and dollars -- of the flying public, and you need to work together.

The thing is that airports and airlines have proven they can do just that, with positive results.

Earlier this year, Southwest and Philadelphia unveiled a $45 million Terminal E expansion that the airline and city revamped in a public-private partnership to provide the airline seven new aircraft gates, a 500-seat holding area, new rest rooms and a mini-food court with new concessions.

So, while Southwest CEO Gary Kelly is one of the airline executives calling for airports to be more circumspect in their spending, he doesn't seem to mind airports doling out cash for Southwest's sake.

In addition to its partnership with Philadelphia, the airline also worked out a deal in Panama City, Fla., in which a local landowner, St. Joe Co., which donated the land for the new airport there, has agreed to make quarterly payments to the airline, if necessary, to ensure that its new flights from Baltimore/Washington, Nashville and Orlando at least break even during their first three years.

Other airlines and airports are being equally clever and accommodating.

A Mississippi company, Aviation Advantage, is paying AirTran a fixed amount for operating service to Biloxi and Tunica, Miss., including covering higher fuel costs. In turn, Aviation Advantage is selling large blocks of seats to several major hotels/casinos in those cites, and the company is selling other seats on those flights as charters. The airline can sell the remaining seats.

Other airports are taking a more direct approach.

Bucking the trend of airports moving to raise the carriers' landing fees, Pittsburgh waived those costs for two years while agreeing to cough up $300,000 of its own funds for marketing to entice Delta to launch a new service to Paris.

Myrtle Beach, S.C., is reducing its landing fees, terminal rents and other carrier charges. To sweeten the pot, the city's convention and visitors bureau has pledged to raise $8 million from private businesses and state tourism funds to finance a marketing campaign to attract more tourists, especially golfers, from northern states.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the airport waived landing fees for AirTran for a year to entice the airline to start flights to Baltimore/Washington, Fort Myers, Orlando and Tampa.

Portland, Ore., agreed to pay Delta $3.5 million to maintain its daily nonstop flight to Tokyo. To circumvent FAA regulations prohibiting direct payments to airlines, the airport's operator, the Port of Portland, is using nonairport funds for the deal.

Roswell, N.M., guaranteed American Eagle $2.4 million in revenue over two years for service to Dallas/Fort Worth.

Wichita, Kan., guaranteed AirTran $6.5 million a year to keep flying to the airline's Atlanta hub.

Sometimes airports and airlines can work together on what not to spend.

"Our modernization program was scaled back by $3 billion in close cooperation with our carriers," said David Vossbrink, a spokesman for Mineta San Jose Airport in California.

"Our carriers have been very supportive of our program over the past several years, and we have included them in our planning and decision-making at key cost points."

Other airports and airlines should aim for such collaboration. Otherwise, they could wind up with nothing.

Email Michael Fabey at [email protected].  
This column appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of Travel Weekly.

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