The first concern should be for the 3,400 or so people Delta Air Lines employs in the Salt Lake area. Those jobs are important to the local economy, and losing them would be a blow.
If, as recent reports indicate, Delta is on the verge of a merger with Northwest Airlines, there is little local officials can or should do to affect that. Few industries are as volatile as the airline industry has been since deregulation 30 years ago. Without being privy to the details, we can assume Delta and Northwest, both of which have teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, are doing what they feel is necessary in order to survive. Northwest just announced a small loss in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Congress may try to intervene. Some Democrats have said the merger would lead to a domino of mergers, resulting in only two or three airlines and much higher prices. That's a ridiculous position, given the extremely competitive history and nature of the industry.
But if a Delta merger happens, the time for local leaders to prove their worth would come afterward, when they must convince the new, larger airline to continue a hub in Salt Lake City. Northwest already has hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis. It may not make geographic sense to keep Delta's hub in Cincinnati, but Salt Lake City would seem a logical Western hub.
State Senate leaders already have discussed the possibility of granting tax breaks. Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker has established a Transportation Promotion Alliance, which brings together state, local, transportation and business leaders to form a united front in the effort to keep the hub.
It's a worthy effort. In terms of doing business and having access to direct flights worldwide (Delta was poised to begin nonstop service soon from Salt Lake City to Paris), local air passengers are well served by having a hub. Under the best scenario, the new, larger airline would expand operations here, bringing a greater concentration of equipment and manpower.
But Utahns also need to face the future with a dose of realism. There is another side to the hub question. While they provide jobs and easy connections, hubs also tend to inflate prices in and out of a city. Pittsburgh offers a telling example. It lost a USAir hub several years ago. Since then, air fares there have dropped 26.4 percent, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. This happened despite overall increases in fares nationwide. While the number of daily nonstop flights has fallen from 110 to 63, other airlines have stepped in to fill the market void.
In other words, losing the hub wouldn't be the end of the world. But, on balance, keeping the hub would be much better for the local economy. For one thing, it would be hard to replace those 3,400 jobs.