Dirty Little Air War

Bully! Crybaby! Northwest and Sun Country brawl for control of the sandbox--and billions in local air-travel revenues

For a few short hours between the morning crush of travelers and the late-afternoon round of returning planes, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal goes quiet. So quiet you can hear Dave DiSalvo's dress shoes squeak against the vinyl floor as he paces the rows of stanchions that cordon off the paths to Sun Country Airlines' ticket counters.

"This is called the interlocking-S configuration," DiSalvo says sardonically, squatting behind one of the matte-black posts to make sure the row is razor-straight. "Other airlines actually send you to stanchion school." He stands, snickers, stoops and sights again. "The trick is to use the lines on the floor." He waves a finger at the cracks between the squares of vinyl. Then he stands, walks five feet further, and rocks another post back and forth until its base sits smack-dab astride the line.

The manager for Midwest operations at Sun Country Airlines, the Twin Cities' newest scheduled carrier, DiSalvo has been at the airport since 3:00 a.m. On any given morning he may see the sunrise from the open end of a recalcitrant jetway that needs help snuggling up to a 727. Then he may spend a few luckless minutes trying to boot the right screen on one of the brand-new computers tucked beneath the ticket counter, or helping figure out how to arrange the sharp new purple seats in the boarding area.

In short, DiSalvo routinely performs tasks other companies delegate to entire departments. Need proof? Take a five-minute ride north to the Lindbergh Terminal, home to the 800-pound gorilla of an airline Sun Country has decided to challenge head-on.

Here, instead of DiSalvo's two twisty stanchion queues, vast mazes of posts and ropes funnel passengers to hundreds of feet of red-and-gray Northwest Airlines ticket counters. Travelers who'd like to skirt the lines can check their bags at the curb or at the electronic kiosks staffed by flocks of uniformed customer-service agents. Behind the metal detectors and beyond the marble-floored shopping promenade, one of Northwest's 400-plus planes takes off every four minutes; altogether, the airline occupies 54 of the terminal's 70 gates.

The scene hardly suggests a business under siege. And yet the stretch of tarmac and road between the two terminals has become the no man's land in what some call the hottest air war in the nation--a corporate conflict that has been simmering for more than a year.

The stakes for local consumers are so high that just six weeks after taking the oath of office last winter, Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch announced his intention to jump into the fray alongside federal regulators. Volumes of data indicate that Northwest's near lock on the Twin Cities market gouges Minnesotans, Hatch told reporters. So he would be keeping an especially sharp watch on the airline's response to Sun Country's foray into ten of its busiest routes.

Richard Hirst, Northwest's senior vice president for corporate affairs, wasted little time in protesting. On February 22 he penned a sharply worded letter to the attorney general, declaring that his company had done nothing to deserve the attack.

"Most people are unaware of the fact that Northwest has historically provided Sun Country Airlines with a wide range of services and facilities," Hirst wrote. "We recently renewed and extended Sun Country's lease of the hangar it occupies, at half the rental rate it was paying previously. We provide ground handling services to Sun Country at various places on our system outside Minneapolis. We train their pilots. We de-ice their planes. On request, we provide maintenance trouble-shooting for them. While we will compete with Sun Country for every passenger, as we do with every other competing airline, it is not our policy and has never been our practice to use airport facilities and vendor services as competitive weapons."

Yet interviews with Sun Country managers, industry analysts, and government regulators, along with documents from state and federal investigators, suggest that even as Hirst composed his letter, Northwest was engaging in exactly the kind of corporate monkeywrenching he said they didn't--and more.

In the past year, as Sun Country has steadily edged its way onto Northwest's turf, the hometown airline has canceled contracts to train the rival's workers; terminated deals to handle its bags and clean its planes in other cities; and ended a spare-parts and equipment exchange that is standard in the industry. The upstart's administrators also suspect Northwest had a hand in its eviction from coveted gate space at the airports in Boston and Los Angeles.

If the idea of Sun Country constituting a serious threat to Northwest seems laughable, experts say it's not so far-fetched. Over the past few years, the nation's seven largest airlines have increasingly turned to a form of competition that consists in large part of staying out of each other's hubs, and raising or lowering their fares in near lock step. A "low-fare entrant," in industry-speak, led by a feisty CEO and catering to anti-corporate sentiment--that kind of airline could begin to upset the whole apple cart.

James Olsen, a Sun Country co-founder and the company's vice president for strategic planning, likens his competitor to a giant toddler: "When you fly one passenger one mile out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, they think that passenger belongs to them," he says of Northwest. "If they see you playing with something they don't have, they want it."

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