Flight risk: The latest US Airways deal must spare Pittsburgh

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It's been a long time since Pittsburghers cared much about US Airways, the region's largest for-profit employer when it operated a major hub at Pittsburgh International Airport. That was a few years and many public dollars ago.

Now the airline, headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., of all places, is a shadow of its former self in Pittsburgh. With only 41 US Airways flights here per day compared to 539 a decade ago, local passengers are more apt to complain that this is the carrier that took a $1 billion terminal built largely to its specifications, then flew off when turbulence hit after 9/11.

But, with 1,800 employees still in the region, down from a peak of 12,000, US Airways still is important to the Pittsburgh economy as it moves ahead on a proposed merger with American Airlines. The $11 billion deal announced last week would create the world's largest airline, retire the US Airways name and, according to some analysts, have only a negligible impact on the region. We can only hope -- the carrier already has gutted plenty.

Although the two prospective partners have little overlap in their flight networks, there may be areas of vulnerability in the merger for Pittsburghers who work for US Airways: the maintenance performed at the Findlay-based airport and the state-of-the-art operations control center in Moon.

Jet maintenance has always been a key component of the company's regional work force, and today US Airways still employs 900 here for that. As to operations, American already has a control center in Dallas-Fort Worth, but the $25 million facility here, staffed by 700, was built with $16.25 million in public incentives.

This deal is not done. It must pass muster with the Federal Trade Commission. Although communities that invest big in companies that later flee get little say in a merger's approval, it's time for regulators to look out for the public as much as the marketplace.

Pittsburgh has taken a hit for past US Airways ideas. Let's hope the airline's final maneuver leaves what remains well enough alone.



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