Airport upgrade

Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 9:08 p.m.
Gainesville Regional Airport boosters and local business leaders showed that they were serious about upgrading services when they raised $650,000 last year for a "ticket trust" to help lure additional carriers to the underutilized facility. Thanks to some additional funding from Washington, that trust has been increased to $1.3 million, and airport officials hope that it will provide sufficient incentive to bring Continental or perhaps another carrier into the Gainesville market.
Talks with Continental have yet to bear fruit. But now comes a hopeful sign that things are already looking up at the airport. US Airways, which has long been providing daily service between Gainesville and Charlotte, N.C., has announced it will upgrade its flights.
The small, cramped and relatively slow 37-seat Dash 8 turboprops that US Airways flies in and out of Gainesville soon will be replaced by roomier, faster and more comfortable 50-seat Canadair Regional Jets. The result will be shorter flying times to Charlotte, and the new jets should lure more local travelers who would rather drive to Jacksonville or Orlando than fly out of Gainesville in small, propeller-driven planes.
Chances are that US Airways would have upgraded to regional jets sooner or later in any case. But airport officials attribute the move at least partly in response to Gainesville's wooing of Continental. If more carriers fly out of Gainesville, the competition for passengers will intensify. The new regional jets are US Airways' way of saying "This is our market - and we're here to stay," Airport Authority member Pat Bainter told The Sun this week.
Whatever the motivation, the announcement is welcome. The regional jets will improve service in and out of Gainesville. The airport may not be able to compete anytime soon with larger regional airports when it comes to ticket price, but comfort, safety and convenience are also strong selling points when trying to persuade area travelers to "fly locally."
Hopefully, the ongoing talks with Continental soon will have a positive outcome. There is some sense of urgency in that regard - the $660,000 in matching federal funds must be committed by the end of March or it will revert to the Treasury. Presumably, airport officials have a Plan B in case Continental balks.
The hunt for a new carrier is still under way, but services already are improving at the airport. Kudos to US Airways for modernizing its fleet and, in do doing, recognizing that Gainesville is a market worth fighting for.

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