USAir to cut planes' time on ground


Emulating its low-cost competitors, the financially struggling USAir Group Inc. announced yesterday that it would use its planes more efficiently by increasing the time that its fleet is in the air.

The strategy is expected to trim the time an aircraft stays on the ground, from 45 minutes on average between flights to as little as 25 minutes, USAir Chairman Seth E. Schofield told airline analysts yesterday in New York.

The plan would enable USAir, which has the highest operating costs of any major U.S. airline, to use its aircraft more productively, giving the airline the equivalent of several more planes a day without adding any aircraft.

"We have streamlined our work force, and now we are streamlining our operation," said Dave Shipley, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based airline, which began laying off 2,500 employees in November to help save $200 million next year. "By working smarter, we can add additional flights without the need for additional people or facilities."

USAir's cost-cutting strategy stems from the company's continuing study about how to operate more efficiently.

Since 1989, USAir, which handles more than half the 27,000 daily passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, has lost $1.2 billion, mirroring the rest of the loss-ridden airline industry. In the third quarter of 1993, USAir was the only major airline to lose money, posting losses of $177 million.

The current program starts Feb. 16 and will affect only a handful of USAir's flights under 500 miles. It will initially mean no additional flights. But because of time savings on the short-haul routes, the carrier said, it may eventually add flights.

A spokesman for USAir declined yesterday to say at which airports the program will take effect. In the short run, the changes will not affect passengers, he said.

"They won't even know it," Mr. Shipley said.

More than two-thirds of USAir's 2,500 daily flights are under 500 miles. Increasingly, those markets have come under attack from discount carriers, which have forced USAir to lower its fares.

Recently, BWI has been the focal point of one of the nation's most intense fare wars, precipitated by Southwest's debut at BWI, the carrier's first East Coast operation.

To maintain its market share, USAir has matched the low fares offered by Southwest from BWI to Chicago and Cleveland. It has also cut prices to compete with even deeper price cuts by Continental Airlines.

But because USAir's costs are higher, low fares hurt USAir more than they did other carriers. In this year's first quarter, it cost USAir 11.4 cents to fly each seat one mile, compared with 7.2 cents for Southwest and an industry average of 9.3 cents.

USAir's higher costs stem largely from the fact that its extensive route system requires more hubs, more ground crews, a larger fleet and more maintenance.

"The change in strategy will significantly reduce operating costs in short-haul markets while providing levels of service our customers have told us they want," Mr. Schofield said yesterday after his meeting with analysts in New York.

In a related move yesterday, the airline announced that it would reduce unrestricted business fares between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by up to 48 percent on Jan. 5. If the change stimulates business, it will be extended to other key business routes, USAir said.

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