ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Like the unpopular teen-ager standing alone at the prom, Trans World Airlines is watching from its hub here as the airline industry's major players dance with each other.
Two weeks ago, UAL Corp. (NYSE:UAL - news) and US Airways announced a $4.3 billion merger, which would enlarge what was already the world's largest carrier -- UAL's United Airlines.
That sparked an industrywide reaction. As No. 2 carrier American reportedly sought out Northwest, analysts began speculating that No. 3 carrier Delta would fit well with Continental Airlines, and British Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines admitted they are discussing a possible merger.
TWA's dance card, however, remains blank. Company officials say they're paying attention to what's happening in the industry and will listen to any offer that comes along.
But analysts don't expect anyone to start tapping TWA's shoulder.
``There is no place in this merger picture for TWA,'' said Ray Neidl, an analyst with investment bank ING Barings. ``I don't think anyone would be interested in them.''
It's not hard to figure out why. The St. Louis-based carrier hasn't turned a profit since 1988. In 1999, TWA lost $353.4 million, or $5.58 per share. None of the other top American airlines lost money last year.
But TWA does have consistently increasing traffic and a solid record as the nation's best on-time performer. For the last three quarters and the 1999 calendar year, TWA led the eight major U.S. carriers in on-time performance.
And it's next on the list. In 1999, the top six U.S. passenger carriers, based on operating revenue, were United, American, Delta, Northwest, US Airways, and Continental -- all mentioned in the recent bout of merger speculation. Independent-minded Southwest, profitable for the last 27 years, was No. 7, followed by TWA.
It's Southwest's success that keeps TWA's hopes for success and eventual profitability alive. TWA spokesman Mark Abels said no one thinks Southwest needs to find a partner to counter a prospective United-US Airways alliance.
Neither, then, does TWA.
``The airlines like United and I'd say American have made the decision they're going to compete on the basis of massive size,'' Abels said. ``That's a business model that works. That's not the only way to compete in our business.''
Southwest does, however, carry a far greater number of passengers, about 5.3 million per month compared to about 2.3 million for TWA. Southwest also operates its entire fleet with a nontraditional ``no-frills'' approach. TWA's mold, meanwhile, is still that of the larger carriers. It aggressively markets to business travelers, has first-class sections and airport lounges, and offers trans-Atlantic service.
Abels insists TWA's path to finally turning a profit can continue uninhibited by a wave of airline mergers and industry consolidation. He said the airline's efforts to fully modernize its aircraft fleet, cut back on staff and improve its various computer systems is much more important.
If the industry does end up consolidating, with the top six carriers merging into three, TWA and No. 9 America West could get picked up by one of the new, larger carriers as an afterthought, said Terry Trippler, an airline expert at Minneapolis-based 1travel.com, which books discount airfares and travel packages.
``It's kind of like you're choosing up sides to play baseball, on the sandlot,'' Trippler said. ``At the end, `OK, I'll take him.' The last ballplayer.''
Or, he said, TWA, with hubs in St. Louis and New York, and America West, with hubs in Columbus, Ohio, Las Vegas and Phoenix, could get in on the big boys' act.
``Those two together could be a decent airline,'' Trippler said. ``When you think about their route structures, they don't really have many duplicated routes.''