AIRPORT CONTACTS OTHER SUITORS
Continental opts not to fly to Gainesville
Published: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 12:27 a.m.
Luring an airline
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The decision is a blow to local businesspeople and airport officials, who have pursued the airline for more than 18 months, raising $650,000 in pledges to buy tickets and offering up the majority of a $660,000 federal grant as an incentive.
"It's been tough; it really is," said Airport Authority member C.B. Daniel, who led the drive to create the "ticket trust" to demonstrate support for Continental. "It's very disappointing to find they're not going to follow through."
Continental officials called Gainesville Regional Airport Director Rick Crider with the bad news Wednesday morning. Crider relayed it to airport authority members, who had been temporarily buoyed on Monday by US Airways' announcement that it plans to replace its turboprop planes with regional jets on its flights into Gainesville.
Crider also placed calls Wednesday to the other airlines Gainesville has been courting. Continental's decision to walk away from $1.3 million in incentives could intensify ongoing talks with them about other routes, including American Airlines to Dallas and/or Miami, Delta Air Lines to Dallas and Northwest Airlines to Memphis, Tenn.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see things move along pretty quickly from here," said Daniel, who is chairman of CNB National Bank, noting that Gainesville can use its $660,000 federal grant to attract any airline.
The airport has until March 31 to use the federal money to attract new service or expand service with its current carriers: Delta and US Airways.
Once an airline commits to new service, Daniel said businesses that pledged to the ticket trust for Continental will be asked if they'll throw their support behind the new airline.
"If American comes through with service to Miami and Dallas," he said, "I guarantee you this community would be happy to roll over those $650,000 in the ticket trust."
Routes to other cities might cause some businesses to retract their pledges, Daniel said.
Airport Authority Chairman Jon Morris said he's "fairly confident" that new service still will take flight in the next year.
"We've had discussions with other carriers that did not involve much of this incentive money, and if more of it were thrown their way, it's possible it will make a difference," he said.
Continental spokesman Rahsaan Johnson told The Sun that the airline concluded months ago that the routes local officials were pushing for were not viable, but gave the area a second look when the financial incentives became available.
"We've been saying, 'Look, y'all, we don't think it's going to work.' " Johnson said. "I won't say our interest wasn't renewed when they got the federal grant, but we won't add service in a market where we don't think we'll be viable to the market in the long-term."
Carrie Miller can be reached at (352) 338-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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