Senators battle for rural air service
ST. PAUL - Minnesota and North Dakota senators promise they will fight to hold airline executives to a promise that small communities' air service will fare well if a merger produces the world's largest airline.
"Show us that this will happen," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she will demand from chief executive officers of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines after they said service away from Northwest's Minneapolis-St. Paul hub would benefit from any merger.
Klobuchar and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., talked about a possible merger Wednesday after a joint St. Paul appearance.
Airline leaders Douglas Steenland of Northwest and Richard Anderson of Delta wrote to Klobuchar, trying to allay her fears about problems Minnesota would face after a merger.
"A merger of this sort would deliver significant benefits ... by increasing service to smaller, more thinly traveled routes," Steenland and Anderson wrote.
Klobuchar and Dorgan were skeptical.
"I think there is too little competition in the airline industry," Dorgan said in an interview. "And I think fares are too high in rural areas as opposed to areas where there is competition."
If the Northwest-Delta merger wins federal regulators' approval, Dorgan made a prediction: "We will have a new wave of mergers that I don't think is in the public interest."
Dorgan and Klobuchar sit on the Senate Commerce Committee, which will look into the merger once details are available, including how it would affect smaller airports Northwest serves across the two states.
"I just see this as critical as we talk about this new economy in rural areas, whether it is the oil in North Dakota or whether it is wind energy," Klobuchar said. "We need to have a transportation system that meets those needs."
While many in Minnesota are interested in the Minneapolis-St. Paul hub, Dorgan concentrated on smaller airports.
"When they start talking about the hub, I am very interested in the spoke," he said.
Even if the merger occurs, most experts say the hub is so profitable that it will remain. However, a merged airline's headquarters is expected to be in Atlanta, forcing up to 2,300 Minnesotans out of work.
"It's one of those things that it is going to be noticeable," Minnesota State Economist Tom Stinson said. "It's not going to be a disaster."
Minnesota lost 23,000 jobs in the last half of 2007 and more are leaving with the closing of a Macy's Minnesota headquarters and the St. Paul plant that makes Ford Ranger pickup trucks.
It is a piling on of bad news, Stinson said.