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Painful Departure at Airport: With Fuel Costs Crimping Revenue, American Eagle Will End Service to Albany

June 26, 2008

By Eric Anderson, Albany Times Union, N.Y.

Jun. 26–COLONIE — American Eagle will end nearly 80 years of continuous service to Albany International Airport when it drops its last three daily round trips to Chicago on Nov. 1.

The carrier and its predecessors first began serving the airport in 1929, a year before they came up with the name American Airlines.

Eagle’s 14 employees in Albany will be able to apply for other jobs at the carrier, airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said.

The pullout was among a wide range of cutbacks that American Eagle and American Airlines announced Wednesday, just a day after an industry group, the Business Travel Coalition, warned that $130-a-barrel oil endangers U.S. airlines’ very survival.

The news stunned local passengers and travel agents.

“You are kidding. They pioneered this airport,” said longtime travel agent Carl Mitchell of Currier Travel in Colonie. “I remember the days when they were the only ones here.”

“I’m almost speechless,” added Mitchell, who went to work for American in 1946 before becoming a travel agent three years later.

“Dammit. Dammit. Dammit,” said Jean Gagnon of Plaza Travel in Latham.

“American has been here as long as I can remember,” she said as she quickly worked to rebook clients who were on American for a trip to Hawaii in December. “It’s going to mess up a lot of people.”

At the airport Wednesday afternoon, Paul Dechow, a biomedical science professor from Dallas, had just gotten off an Eagle flight for what he thought would be the first of many trips to Albany. He’s collaborating with researchers here on a National Science Foundation project, and is a platinum-level frequent flier on American.

“Today’s flight was packed,” he said. “There wasn’t a seat to be had.”

But the airline wasn’t making enough money to justify continuing service.

“It’s not just the regional jets,” said spokeswoman Huguely. “It’s the fares you can charge in the market. It’s the cost of fuel, the cost of labor.”

A summary of American’s top 150 airports for 2007 showed that Albany ranked 131st by revenue, according to figures from the Albany County Airport Authority. It carries just three of every 100 passengers here, and brought in about $6.5 million in revenue last year.

By comparison, Southwest Airlines, Albany’s largest carrier, brought in nearly six times that amount.

Still, American’s long history means there are plenty of people who are part of its frequent-flier program and have unused miles.

Huguely said they could drive to another airport to redeem their miles, or spend them in other ways at the airline’s Web site. She said passengers on flights after Nov. 1 should call American to rebook out of another airport or to get a refund.

American began flying in Albany as Colonial Airlines in 1929, said airport spokesman Doug Myers. Through the years it often was one of only two or three carriers operating here.

But deregulation in 1978 helped attract a slew of new carriers. Among them was United Airlines, which flew in direct competition with American on the route between Albany and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Southwest began serving Chicago’s Midway Airport with two daily nonstop flights three years ago.

American downsized at Albany International Airport as competition heated up, moving from 727s and MD80s to 50-seat regional jets. But those small aircraft have become the least profitable to operate as fuel costs have jumped.

Half the scheduled flights at Albany are aboard regional jets, and the Business Travel Coalition on Wednesday identified the airport as one of several dozen nationwide that could see deep cuts in service because of fuel costs.

American Eagle also said it will end service at Providence, R.I.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Samana, Dominican Republic; and San Luis Obispo, Calif., where it will also close its maintenance base.

At LaGuardia Airport, American will cut five flights and Eagle will cut 37. American is ending service to Oakland, Calif., London Stansted, and Barranquilla, Colombia.

Mark Bardack, a public relations executive with Ed Lewi Associates in Clifton Park, has a trip booked for late October to the West Coast on American.

“This is a voucher trip because they never got me home last year,” he said. “This is a potential nightmare for me. I’m on a strict schedule there.”

But he’s in luck: He will be back home before American Eagle ends its Albany flights. Anderson can be reached at 454-5323 or by e-mail at eanderson@timesunion.com.

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