It’s always curious when economic development officials start talking like politicians who seem to think that admitting there is a problem is the same as being blamed for it.
We thought of this as we read Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development’s upbeat column in The Commercial Appeal explaining why we should all have goose bumps of excitement over the merger of Northwest and Delta Airlines.
Well, maybe we should expect that from Commissioner Kisber, who is after all a political appointee of Governor Phil Bredesen, but it seems to be an attitude that is rampant among the people who should be telling us the cold, hard truth about this deal. There’s no sin in being optimistic, but we’d have a better feeling if some of our economic development and airport experts would tell us what the down side could ultimately be and what we would do if it happens.
Hubs And Spokes
Yes, Commissioner Kisber, we recognize the value that a hub brings to Memphis’ economy, and although we gripe about our airfares, we still understand that it gives us a distinct competitive advantage. If it were not so, why do all major cities beg and plead for hubs of their own.
The headlines alone made for a revealing counterpoint.
The headline on Commissioner Kisber’s column said: Northwest-Delta merger: good for Tennessee.
A day later, on the CA’s front page was this one: Airline merger may be trouble for Pinnacle.
Just The Facts
In other words, it seems like all the wishful thinking and happy talk to the contrary, there is a price that Memphis will have to pay in this merger, notably a wound to our 2,000-employee regional carrier. Meanwhile, Delta CEO Richard Anderson assures in a speech here us that this has nothing to do with the merger. It seems these days that every one immediately shifts into their spin cycle in response to any question.
According to Delta officials, canceling the Pinnacle contract was a result of a continuing problem, but it sure seems more than a passing curiosity that it was announced in the wake of the merger announcement. And the folks packing their boxes at Pinnacle sure connect the dots in this way.
Mr. Anderson continued his reassurances at a breakfast sponsored by the Memphis Regional Chamber, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Economic Club of Memphis and Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, but it sure was hard to put much stock in his Panglossian view from the bridge with the Pinnacle headline shouting from the front page. What were we to believe – our eyes or our ears?
Wanted: More Specificity
He did promise that Memphis would remain a hub, but then again, he didn’t say how that hub would be defined – by the current number of flights or half the present number of flights or a quarter of the present flights. It was cold comfort, but in Memphis, hope springs eternal and we seem given to “everything’s going to be fine” speeches from our economic development leaders. We guess our civic response to Mr. Anderson’s speech is supposed to be that he told us everything would be just fine, so everything will be just great.
Since the merger was announced, speculation in industry journals has been rampant about the hit that Memphis will take, and although we hope that all good things come to pass, it’s just hard to see a future that will be as bright as the present. But despite that serious concern, we’ve been given a steady dose of upbeat rhetoric suggesting that this merger will be a great thing for Memphis. We’ve even heard some Airport Authority board members suggest that our strong personal friendships and relationships position us to be a winner in the tug-of-war between Memphis and Atlanta.
While we are as Southern as the next person and know the power of relationships in this part of the world, we have a sneaking hunch that at the end of the day, the spreadsheets that will drive decisions about this merger won’t have a column called “relationships.” Facing serious corporate challenges even with the consolidation, it’s hard to imagine Delta Airlines making any decision that won’t be based on the cold, hard facts of profit-making, friends be damned.
We appreciate the power of positive thinking, but we would appreciate even more some suggestions from the powers that be about what our options are if worse comes to worse. Surely, there is some contingency planning going on in this volatile environment, and we think that the citizens who own the airport deserve to know more about our scenarios for the future.
Here’s the thing we need to assure our economic development officials. When you tell us we have a problem, we aren’t going to say you are the cause of it. That’s particularly true of any negative developments from this merger. Surely, no one thinks that our economic development folks have any real power to change the forces that are reshaping the aviation industry.
So, shoot straight with us. We promise we won’t shoot the messenger.