9th District Congressman Steve Cohen responded to a growing outcry against high passenger fares for Delta Airlines’ Memphis-originated flights with a press conference at his Overton Park-area residence Thursday, and, like most commentators on the issue, pinpointed competition as the solution.
Cohen told a group of reporters that he had expressed his concerns about the high travel fares in fresh dialogue with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta, which operates what amounts to a “fortress hub” in Memphis as a consequence of that airline’s merger with Northwest, previously the city’s hub airline.
The congressman said he had also asked his staff to research anti-trust statutes for possible clues to action and was considering holding local hearings on the matter. Scheduling hearings in Washington would be more difficult, said Cohen, a member of the House Transportation Committee and its aviation subcommittee. “
The Republican majority controls hearings in Washington,” he said, and the same majority was unlikely to be friendly to the idea of imposing new regulations on an industry that was deregulated some three decades ago.
“It all comes through competition,” said Cohen, who characterized himself as an early activist ion behalf of a local presence for Southwest Airlines, the well-known budget airline whose flights emanating from Little Rock and Nashville have traditionally been fallback options for cost-conscious Memphis passengers willing to drive to those cities.
But the congressman thought it was unlikely that Southwest would materialize in Memphis in the near future with an operation on the same scale. Southwest is already scheduled to take over the local budget operations of Air Tran, another low-budget airline, but even that “is going to take a while,” Cohen said.
In the meantime, there are options like USAir, whose Memphis-to-Washington connections Cohen said he availed himself of twice recently. “It’s a smaller, cheaper competition that works.”
Among the causes of the high-rate problem here are the fact of deregulation and the recent rise in fuel prices, according to Cohen, who said he thought Delta had miscalculated in imposing a cutback on its Memphis-originated flights, the other issue besides high rates that Memphians have reacted to. “That was a mistake, because this is a low-cost airport,” the congressman said.
Of his own efforts on behalf of Memphis airline customers, Cohen said, “I was on this subject long before Debbie did Memphis or Delta did Atlanta or whatever….I was there.”
That was a clear reference to criticism aimed at the congressman by contributors to the Facebook site “Delta Does Memphis,” operated by Memphis blogger Tom Jones as a means of organizing resistance to Delta’s local pricing policies.
Among the congressman’s critics on the site has been his opponent in the 9th District Democratic primary on August 2, Tomeka Hart, who in a recent post said,”It's disappointing that we haven't heard more about this from our current Congressman….” Cohen said someone else connected with the site had tweeted that he had not wanted to get involved in the Delta situation. “That’s a lie,” he said. Asked if the criticism was politically motivated, he said, “Of course, it is.”
Cohen noted that he himself is now a “Friend” on the site and has made several posts in opposition to Delta’s policies. The congressman said intervention by local business leaders would be the most effective message to Delta officials.