CONTINENTAL IS NONCOMMITTAL

$650,000 is raised to attract airline


Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 9:57 p.m.
If Continental Airlines agrees to come to Gainesville Regional Airport, the airline's first $650,000 in tickets are already sold, airport officials say.
But with the airline industry in turmoil, it's still unclear whether Continental will accept the offer.
"In this climate, we do not have the luxury of starting new service when there's not clear profit potential on a route," Continental spokesman Jeff Awalt said. "We're going to have to look at Gainesville very closely before we make a decision."
Airport officials and local business leaders met Monday at the airport's passenger terminal to announce that they'd raised $650,000 for a "ticket trust" that would be used to buy Continental tickets if the airline agrees to establish twice-daily service from Gainesville to the airline's hub in Newark, N.J.
Service to Newark could bring back a significant number of the passengers Gainesville has lost to Orlando and Jacksonville airports in recent years, according to airport officials.
As many as three out of every four Gainesville-area air travelers choose those larger airports over Gainesville Regional Airport when they're flying out-of-state, officials said.
Airport-sponsored studies show that New York City - a short distance from Newark - is the No. 1 destination for those air travelers. At present, Gainesville's airport offers direct service only to Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.
Continental representatives and airport officials have been in negotiations over possible Newark service since the fall. Last month, airport officials decided to sweeten the pot by asking local institutions to donate to a trust that would be used to buy airline tickets in Continental's first year of operation.
If Continental comes to Gainesville, donors to the trust will get airline tickets equal to the amount of their donation - and if not, donors will get their money back.
Airport officials set a goal of $500,000 but exceeded that goal Monday when the University of Florida agreed to put $300,000 in the trust. UF President Charles Young said the university spends at least that amount in flights to or through New York every year.
"We'll get our money back one way or another," he said.
Young said he hoped Continental would also consider flights from Gainesville to its other hub in Houston, providing an east-west connection that could prove convenient to people traveling on UF business.
For a Gainesville-to-Newark flight, Continental would probably use the 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145 jet, the same model it uses for similar routes. Airport officials say they're confident Gainesville has enough New York-bound passengers to fill the jets twice a day.
And there's evidence that ridership at the airport is slowly climbing, after a long period of decline. Ridership figures for the first eight months of 2002 show ridership up almost 4 percent over the first eight months in 2001. Airport officials say post-Sept. 11 security measures have brought some passengers back to Gainesville, where security lines are shorter.
"There's a lot of demand for the flights we already have," board member Jon Morris said. "We're filling the planes up."
Airport officials say that breaking the $500,000 goal they set is a major milestone in attracting Continental to the airport. But Continental officials remain poker-faced about the prospect.
"We're looking at Gainesville, and we're looking at a lot of other options," Awalt said.
With the industry still in turmoil after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many airlines are cutting routes rather than expanding. Continental canceled its service from Daytona Beach to Newark after the attacks and brought it back in the middle of last year only after the federal government agreed to reimburse the airline for possible losses on the route.
Augusta, Ga., attracted Continental to its airport late last year after raising $600,000 in travel-bank donations - but the airport and state and local governments also kicked in millions of dollars in waived fees, office space and marketing services.
Gainesville also has an added incentive to offer. On Jan. 1, the airport began charging a $4.50-per-passenger fee to fund $3.2 million in improvements to its passenger terminal.
Part of that money will be spent to implement changes requested by the newly formed federal Transportation Security Agency, but Airport Director Rick Crider says some of the money will go to expanding ticket counters and installing covered walkways that connect the terminal to waiting jets - two things airport officials believe the airport will need to attract Continental.
Local representatives of Atlantic Southeast Airways and Piedmont Airways - Gainesville's two already-operating airlines - declined to comment on the new fee.
Crider said Continental representatives will come to the airport soon to discuss other possible changes to the terminal.
"It's good that this refurbishment is happening now because it gives us a chance to address their concerns," he said.
Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@gvillesun. com.

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