AirTran CEO supports consolidation, lobbies for D.C., N.Y., landing slots

Speaking to an audience that included officials from the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration, AirTran Airways CEO Bob Fornaro bluntly made clear his airline's desire for more landing rights at federally restricted airports in both New York and Washington.

Fornaro made those comments this afternoon while speaking to the Aero Club of Washington, D.C., saying that should two rivals merge, AirTran would "seek out" any slots or assets those carriers might have to relinquish – especially at the capacity-controlled airports of New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National.

AirTran would also be interested in securing space in Atlanta and Chicago O'Hare, should a merged rival divest assets at either of those airports. AirTran has made no secret of its desire to secure more space in Atlanta, where rival Delta is the dominant carrier. Delta is currently thought to be in advanced merger talks with Northwest.

"It may surprise some of you, but AirTran is in favor of consolidation," Fornaro said, adding "the sooner the better."

But Fornaro made it clear that while AirTran may look to pick up some landing slots if bigger airlines combine, he was not in favor of "consolidation at the expense of competition."

Saying that AirTran would like to further increase its attractiveness to business travelers, Fornaro said "access to key cities is absolutely crucial for us to develop a strong network."

"You have to go to the places they want to go," Fornaro said.

In particular, he said AirTran had been working hard to secure additional landing slots at New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National – airports where access is capacity-controlled by the Department of Transportation.

"We've made small inroads, but we haven't gotten all we need or want" at those airports, he said.

Fornaro also looked at the issue of congestion, and took a special exception to the number of regional jets now being used at some of the USA's most popular airports.

Fornaro cited figures that show an 18% drop in the number seats offered on the average departure from LaGuardia since 2000. For O'Hare the number of average seats per departure has dropped 15% since 2000 and 10% at Washington National.

Regional jets and small aircraft are largely to blame, he said, adding that bigger planes would make better use of existing facilities, particularly at capacity-controlled airports where congestion is a problem.

Fornaro also claimed that there are currently 13 flights a day between Boston and Washington National that depart with 50 or fewer seats, and 15 with 50 or fewer seats between Washington and New York.

Fornaro cited those figures to bolster his airline's push for more landing slots at those airports. AirTran flies a fleet of Boeing 737s and 717s, both of which seat more than twice the number of passengers as most regional jets.

"I'd say the playbook is pretty clear," he said of the proliferation of regional jets at busy airports. "Just flood the market and let the DOT come to the rescue.

The smaller planes are just "tying up a lot of the infrastructure," Fornaro said.

He also used that as an argument to campaign against the so-called "congestion pricing" proposal that has been floated as a way to alleviate overcrowding at airports like New York JFK. Under that scenario, airports could charge more for peak-landing times — something that in theory would encourage airlines and passengers to look for flights at less-popular and less-crowded times to avoid the higher fees.

Instead, Fornaro said airlines should be encouraged to use bigger planes to help accommodate more fliers at busy airports.