Originally created 04/29/01

Airport takes cue from Asheville



High ticket prices. Passengers driving hours to other airports. And no direct flights to New York.

Sound familiar?

The same problems officials say are plaguing Augusta Regional Airport also occur at the Asheville, N.C., airport, where passenger levels and area population figures mirror Augusta's.

"Asheville is similar to Augusta in that their number one market in which they didn't have service was the New York market," said Bill Rathert, vice president of the Kiehl Hendrickson aviation consulting firm.

"They both are serviced by two airline brands - Delta and US Airways."

The difference is that Asheville's airport has reached the finish line for one solution - new air service.

Augusta Regional officials are hoping their chance will come and are offering $1.7 million in incentives and tapping the business community for support to lure new air service.

For years, Asheville Regional Airport lost area passengers to the nearby airports in Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, S.C.

In the same manner, many potential Augusta Regional passengers drive to Atlanta in search of cheaper flights to more cities.

Then Asheville Regional Airport officials paired up with Kiehl Hendrickson on an 18-month campaign to lure a new service to New York.

In February, their efforts paid off as Continental Airlines announced that it was starting service on its subsidiary Continental Express.

Starting July 2, two flights will leave Asheville daily for Continental's hub in Newark, N.J.

Impressed with Kiehl Hendrickson's success on Asheville's "Landing the Big Apple" campaign, the Augusta Aviation Commission hired the firm to do the same thing for them, via the "Seize the Sky" campaign.

Augusta airport officials have met with representatives from both United and Continental airlines. But the uncertainty of a merger between United and US Airways has the airport looking closer at Continental and service to the Newark hub.

The strategy is the same that Asheville used - rally the business community and show commitment on the airport's part. "You have to belly up to the bar," said Mike Armour, Asheville's airport director.

One way to measure commitment is to see what type of incentives airports are willing to offer new airlines.

To attract Continental, Asheville's airport agreed to waive landing and rental fees for the first year, which amounts to nearly $250,000 the airline will save.

The airport also worked out a deal with local business and government agencies to provide about $120,000 to market the new route.

According to Augusta Regional records, airport officials have offered Continental and United representatives similar incentives.

The airport would provide $100,000 per added flight for marketing and waive about $200,000 in landing and rental fees for the first year of service.

In addition, the airport would spend $1.3 million to construct physical room for a new airline, including an office, ticketing counter and baggage area.

That same offer would stand for any airline starting up direct service from Augusta Regional to New York, Washington or Chicago, said Michael Parish, Augusta Regional's finance director.

He said airlines that currently service the airport - US Airways Express and Delta subsidiaries Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Comair - receive fuel discounts, as would a new airline.

The community factor

Beyond the airport, banding together the area's business community is a factor that airlines consider, said Continental spokeswoman Julie Gardner.

"There are a combination of factors, obviously demand being the largest," she said. "(But) the support of the community is crucial."

Taking another cue from Asheville's campaign, Augusta airport officials have been urging local business leaders to be willing to pledge a portion of their travel budgets to a new airline.

Mr. Parish said Augusta Regional's campaign has not reached the stage of negotiations where binding pledges are needed, but a number of companies have indicated their willingness to commit money.

Members of the Asheville business community pledged about $1.2 million in their campaign.

While Asheville's campaign does not serve as an exact model for Augusta, Mr. Rathert said, it does set some good ground rules.

"The core principles are the same," he said. "You need to demonstrate to the airline why your community will support a new airline."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.

Asheville Regional Airport

Enplanements: 274,281 in 2000

Service-area population: 621,000

Airlines: Continental Express*, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Comair, US Airways and US Airways Express

Direct connection to hubs in: Newark, N.J.*; Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati; and Raleigh, N.C.

*Service will start July 2, 2001

Augusta Regional Airport:

Enplanements: 201,921 in 2000

Service-area population: 581,700

Airlines: Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Comair, US Airways Express

Direct connection to hubs in: Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati