By Lou Washington

Yesterday Delta Airlines announced that Comair, one of Delta’s regional feeder subsidiary airlines would cease operations on 29 September of this year.

Here in Cincinnati, Comair is something of a legend. When I moved to Cincinnati in the very early 1980’s, Comair was comprised of a handful of small twin engine prop aircraft. They flew to Cleveland and other nearby cities. Locally, those of us who flew frequently out of CVG knew that flying on Comair was not going to be like taking a wide-body to Hawaii. Flying Comair was for business folks who were getting business done here in the midwest.

Locally the primary carrier was Delta. Both airlines experienced great growth during the 80’s, both airlines upgraded their fleets and expanded their routes. Delta spent tons of money expanding their facilities here in Cincinnati and eventually made this one of their hubs with a wide array of international flights to Europe.

Comair built a new headquarters building and at a point was by some measures one of the largest airlines in the country. They partnered with Delta and began aligning their route structure with Delta to facilitate the classic hub and spoke operation that serves airlines today.

At a point, Delta purchased Comair and for many, I think this was indeed the beginning of the end for the airline.

This story has been repeated with slight variations now for decades.

TWA purchased Ozark Airlines to gain control of one of their primary feeders in St Louis. Soon after that occurred, the level of service extended to smaller markets well served by Ozark for many years began to deteriorate.

My own hometown of Columbia Missouri was a primary example. Ozark provided non-stop DC-9 (Boeing 717) service to St Louis, Denver, Kansas City and one stop service to Chicago, Washington DC and other destinations. After Ozark was swallowed up, local service to Columbia MO was reduced to a couple of daily flights to St Louis using De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft.

It did not take long for TWA to disappear from the scene with rapacious American Airlines gobbling them up a few years later. The details of that horrendous acquisition make for their own story.

50 Seat CRJ200

In the Delta announcement, the reason for the shut down was based on Comair’s use of 50 seat regional jets. Delta suggested these could not be operated profitably. Delta went on to explain that ridding themselves of Comair would allow them to concentrate on their major route structure served by their larger aircraft.

I’m sure TWA and later American had similar feelings about abandoning the small markets served by Ozark.

Some would say this is the fruit of deregulation. I’m not sure it’s that simple.

I do know this. Comair and Ozark operated profitably on their own, they served thousands of passengers in many smaller markets. They employed hundreds of pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ticketing agents baggage handlers and others. In other words they did know what they were doing, they knew how to operate in an environment their larger siblings chose to ignore or avoid.

Then, they were bought up, integrated into the operations of much larger, more complex and diverse enterprises. When the management of those enterprises decided that flying into smaller markets was not profitable, they abandoned them.

They bought businesses they did not understand and after failing to learn from those businesses they listened to their finance guys and bailed.

Some will call this the free market at work. If that is true, then the free market is not working very well.