Area airport tries to soar

But carriers are shunning small airports

A plane takes off at Gainesville Regional Airport. This week the airport was jilted by Continental Airlines, which declined to offer service from Gainesville to Newark, N.J.

Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 1:06 a.m.
After 18 months of earnestly wooing Continental Airlines for flights to Newark, N.J., it was disappointing to many this week when the airline jilted Gainesville Regional Airport.
But it shouldn't be surprising. Officials at scores of regional airports all over the country are turning handstands to try to attract service from major airlines that are reeling financially and leery of taking chances on smaller markets.
"All of the small airports in Florida are constantly trying to convince an airline to fly to that community," said Florida Airports Council Executive Director Bill Johnson. "They're all doing it almost full-time now."
Marilyn Tubb, who chairs the Gainesville Regional Airport authority's marketing and air service development committee, said, "We're not the only pawn in their game.
"They're one of three we're considering; we're one of 20 they may be considering."
In head-to-head competition with other airports of a similar size, Gainesville has a couple of significant strikes against it: It's not a tourist destination and it's within driving distance to two mid-sized and one large airport, in Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando.
Studies show that 72 percent of Gainesville's air traffic is "leaking" to other airports, but Continental already flies into Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando. The airline is getting Gainesville's business now, without investing in new employees, a ticket counter and other infrastructure in Gainesville.
That factored into Continental's calculus when it opted to turn down $1.3 million in ticket pledges from local businesses and federal grant money this week, Continental spokesman Rahsaam Johnson told The Sun.
"We came to the decision several months ago that it probably would not work because of the market size and because we, frankly, are already in Orlando and Jacksonville and nearby markets."
Pledges from local businesses to buy $650,000 in tickets and the $660,000 in federal grant money was enticing, Johnson said, but Continental ultimately concluded that the local market is not large enough to support twice-daily flights to Newark in the long-run.
"The study that has been going on at Continental has been, in a nutshell: 'Will Gainesville work for us beyond the running out of the federal assistance and beyond the ticket trust.'
"At the end of the day, we want cities to sink or swim on their own," Johnson said, "not because they've been propped up artificially by a federal grant."
Offering financial incentives to airlines for service is a relatively new phenomenon nationally, which got a boost in 2002 when the federal government began awarding small-community air service grants.
Success in Daytona Daytona Beach International Airport was able to parlay the $743,000 federal grant it received in 2002 and another $165,000 in marketing money into twice-daily service to Newark from Continental. The results were good enough that Continental in December added a daily flight to its hub in Cleveland and three daily short-hop flights between Daytona Beach and Tampa.
Because of its beaches and the Daytona International Speedway, that airport has a larger tourism base than Gainesville.
To ensure the success of new and existing airlines, Daytona Airport Director Stephen J. Cooke said the airport continually works to market itself to local travelers by stressing convenience and offering new amenities.
For instance, the airport recently installed wireless Internet service that's free to business travelers with laptops. Free parking is sometimes offered for flights the airport is promoting. And, though it's not a long walk from the parking lot to the terminal, the Volusia County Council is expected in the near future to approve new complimentary parking shuttle service.
"We're very similar to Gainesville in that the market is very thin and we're driving distance from Orlando," Cooke said. "(Orlando) offers 350 nonstop flights every day of the week and 50 airlines, and that's what we've got to compete with."
Similarly, Gainesville airport officials and local business people have done everything they can think of to make the city more attractive to airlines, including raising ticket pledges, winning a federal grant, planning terminal and runway improvements, and hiring a new airport manager, staff and consultants.
"We've done everything on the dashboard of possibilities," Tubb said. "We've tweaked every knob.
"The only thing we haven't done is land a carrier."
Deadline for service Under the terms of Gainesville's federal grant awarded in 2003, the airport has until March 31 to identify a carrier to bring new service.
On Friday, Airport Director Rick Crider said he's not worried about the deadline, in part because of fresh talks with three other carriers the airport has been soliciting for new service.
This week, Airport Authority member C.B. Daniel said talks with Northwest Airlines for jet service to Memphis, Tenn., "are looking better and better." Other airlines and routes under consideration include American Airlines to Dallas and/or Miami, and Delta Air Lines to Dallas.
For most local passengers, new air service will expand their flight options. What it probably won't do, Airport Authority members acknowledge, is drive down fares to where they are in Jacksonville or Orlando.
"Gainesville airport and the amount of buying power we have will never compare with the leisure traveler market in Orlando," Tubb said. "It's kind of a vortex, and it sucks everything out of Florida into it."
That said, Tubb said she hopes prices will be low enough - "Jacksonville plus 20 percent, perhaps" - that Gainesville travelers will pay for the convenience of flying close to home.
"Significant numbers of us would forego the opportunity to drive an hour and a half to and from an airport," Tubb said.
Carrie Miller can be reached at (352) 338-3103 or

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