Flight Plan 

Recently, I found myself standing in a crowded airplane aisle in Minneapolis, waiting to deplane. The pilot had apologized for our hour-and-a-half delay and suggested that those of us with close connections be let off first.

But, after that much of a delay, almost everyone seemed to have a close connection. The man behind me, on his way back to Michigan, had 10 minutes to make his connecting flight. My plane back to Memphis was scheduled to leave as we were standing there, but I hoped — through some miracle of the space/time continuum — that I still might make it.

A nearby couple, still seated and seemingly at their final destination, tried to console the rest of us. In all likelihood, they said, our other planes would be delayed, too, and we'd be able to make them.

"I've never been on a Northwest flight that wasn't delayed," the husband said.

Along with cable TV and cell phone companies, airlines are the big businesses consumers really love to hate. But with word-of-mouth like that, it's no wonder that Northwest — the nation's fifth busiest airline — has had problems.

And with rumors still swirling about a possible merger between Delta and Northwest, I'm of two minds.

On the one hand, a merger would mean more competition in hub airports such as our own and, hopefully, lower fares. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing Southwest take over a few gates at Memphis International.

On the other hand, the merger would put Memphis in a very vulnerable position.

Delta and Northwest have a lot in common. The CEO of Delta used to be the CEO of Northwest. They're both so-called legacy carriers, airlines that existed before deregulation 30 years ago, and both are part of the same SkyTeam alliance, meaning they can share connections and frequent-flier miles. And both carriers emerged from Chapter 11 restructurings last year.

Combined, they would create the nation's largest airline. Travel analysts say that a merger between the two carriers would mean higher fares nationwide, lost jobs in Memphis, and that the quality of service would suffer. (Frankly, I have a hard time imagining it getting much worse, but with free snacks gone, a virtual strip search at security, and U.S. Airlines implementing a new $25 charge for checking more than one bag, I guess it can.)

In some ways, though, Delta and Northwest are too alike. It might be different if one of them had a wildly more successful business model than the other. But they seem to be weighed down by the same problems as all the legacy carriers: aging equipment and high personnel costs.

Memphis has a lot of potential tied up in the airport, as part of the Memphis Fast Forward plan to become America's Aerotropolis. Started last April, the plan is to capitalize on Memphis International and to promote the area around it as a tourist destination and business capital.

"In today's world, time is often the deciding factor of where we live, work, and play," reads a brief on the plan. "[University of North Carolina management professor John] Kasarda's study has shown that in an aerotropolis community, the value/cost proposition will be measured primarily in 'time to the airport.' The new economy's demand for connectivity, speed, and agility is perfectly provided by the greater Memphis Region."

As businesses and services cluster around the airport and the transportation spokes surrounding it, as the theory goes, they will create a new type of urban development.

We don't need a Northwest hub to create an aerotropolis — Memphis' strength lies in FedEx's operations — but it will be hard to go from America's distribution center to America's aerotropolis without an influx passengers.

Delta has hubs in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and New York. Northwest has hubs in Memphis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Amsterdam, and Tokyo. Delta is interested in Northwest's routes in Asia and Europe, because its plan to increase profits relies on expanding international routes.

Which, most likely, would leave Memphis in a diminished capacity. The argument can certainly be made that a united Delta/Northwest airline would want to route flights to Memphis because Atlanta's Hartsfield is so congested, but most likely it would be Delta's show.

Delta CEO Richard Anderson has assured Georgia politicians that he would only seek a merger in which Delta is the remaining entity, and that entity would stay headquartered in Atlanta. Closer to home, U.S. representative Steve Cohen has asked for transportation and judiciary committee hearings if a merger is announced.

Of course, all this is speculation. Delta has also been in talks with United. An announcement is expected this month, and until then, the airlines are keeping quiet.

For the passengers who missed their flights in Minneapolis last week, Northwest automatically booked us on the next ones out and had our new boarding passes waiting at the ticket counter when we deplaned.

Here in Memphis, however, our destination is still unknown.

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