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Two carriers now pursuing Springfield-Chicago service

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Springfield's airport is bound to get some nonstop air service to Chicago now, with two carriers vying for slot exemptions at the O'Hare Airport. Or is it?

United Express applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation Dec. 30 for six slots to operate three daily, round-trip flights with 50-passenger regional jets between O'Hare and the Springfield-Branson Regional Airport. That follows an October application for the same service from American Eagle.

Earlier in the year, United Express' marketing partner, United Airlines, said it would not pursue offering Chicago service to Springfield. Jennifer Heronema, public relations manager for Atlantic Coast Airlines, which does business in the eastern United States as United Express, said she could not speak for United Airlines' decision not to attempt to offer the service, but said she hoped the Department of Transportation would consider United Express' and American Eagle's applications together.

O'Hare Airport has a designated number of "slots" that are issued to airlines in order to control the take-offs and landings of aircraft at the airport and limit congestion, said Bill Mosley, public affairs specialist with the Department of Transportation.

"The 'slot-controlled' airport is one at which there is a lot of traffic, so the slots are issued to airlines, giving them the authority to take off and land at that particular airport," Mosley said.

O'Hare is one of four slot-controlled airports in the country. New York City's John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports, along with Washington National Airport, are the other slot-controlled airports.

Though all of the slots have been issued to airlines for take-offs and landings at those airports, the Department of Transportation can also issue slot exemptions to airlines so they can get service to those airports. The slot exemptions are what the two carriers are vying for in order to get Springfield-to-Chicago service.

The two applications are still pending, and there is no established timeline by which they have to be approved or denied, Mosley said. The applications will be considered together, he said.

The department last granted slot exemptions in October, Mosley said, and at that time it established some guidelines for granting slot exemptions to airlines. Among those criteria are that the proposed service appears to be operationally and financially feasible for an airline, and that the department will place a premium on new nonstop and competitive services, especially those that offer low-fare competition.

The United Express and American Eagle applications mark the first time that two airlines have applied for competing service to one market, Mosley said. Right now, the department has applications pending from five carriers for a total of 135 slot exemptions at O'Hare, Mosley said.

United Express has requested a total of 42 slot exemptions at O'Hare to serve small cities, including Fayetteville, Ark., Montgomery, Ala., and Duluth, Minn., among others. United Express is expanding its business, both by adding service to regional airports and increasing its fleet of regional jets, which would be used to provide the Springfield-Chicago service.

The airline now has a commitment for 24 regional jets to be delivered beginning in January 1999, Heronema said. The airline currently operates a fleet of 66 jet and turboprop aircraft.

Bill Fiala, a specialist in airlines and air transportation for Edward Jones, said it is feasible for Springfield to get nonstop Chicago service.

"As we see the feeder airlines becoming more prominent and their business really starting to take off, then we also see small cities getting more service than ever before," Fiala said.

Feeder airlines are those such as United Express and American Eagle, which feed into larger airlines like United and American. Those types of airlines can provide service to smaller cities more efficiently, Fiala said.

"It's a win-win for both the major airline and the feeder. The feeders are able to get that service into the underserved cities and then to feed that business to the larger airlines," Fiala said.

Fiala studies Southwest Airlines closely and said it may be possible in the future for that low-cost carrier to provide service to smaller cities. For now, however, those markets can be better served by American and United, he said. Springfield does not have the passenger load to entice Southwest to bring service here.

Heronema said the Department of Transportation is under a congressional directive to get more service from smaller cities into the O'Hare Airport.

The addition of nonstop Chicago service could benefit both the business and leisure travelers in the area, said Leigh Branson-Daniels, director of marketing and communications for the Springfield-Branson Regional Airport.

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