Northwest may offer local flights


Jet service to Memphis could begin in Gainesville as early as September.

SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Published: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 5:39 a.m.
Northwest Airlines could begin offering twice-daily jet service from Gainesville to a hub in Memphis, Tenn., as early as September, airport officials said Thursday, opening up new connecting flights to the West and South.
Still smarting from the rejection by Continental Airlines for service to Newark, N.J., that it had pursued for nearly two years, members of the Gainesville-Alachua County Regional Airport Authority were reluctant to call Northwest a done deal.
What board Chairman Jon Morris did say is: "We're a little further along in our negotiations with Northwest than we ever were with Continental."
Alternately described as "an offer" and "a proposal," the plan would require Gainesville Regional Airport officials to use the majority of a $660,000 federal grant as a revenue guarantee to Northwest, to provide covered "jetways" for passengers to use in boarding and make other terminal improvements and to help market the new air service.
"I'm glad we're all sitting down, because that's incredible news," said Marilyn Tubb, chairwoman of the board's air service, business development and marketing committee.
Among the major cities into which Northwest flies nonstop out of Memphis are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Denver and Seattle.
The proposal says nothing about fares, though Airport Director Rick Crider said any airline that would enter the Gainesville market would strive to set fares low enough to entice residents who have been driving to Jacksonville or Orlando to fly.
The Airport Authority voted, 10-1, to move to accept Northwest's proposal while continuing to pursue other options, including service from American to Miami.
But it's not as simple as signing on the dotted line.
Airport officials will have to redesignate the $660,000 federal grant, which had been locally matched with a $650,000 "ticket trust" that businesses pledged to attract service to Continental Airlines.
When Continental announced two weeks ago that it's not coming to Gainesville anytime soon, that ticket trust was invalidated.
Instead of trying to raise $650,000 in pledges for Northwest, Crider said he will ask the U.S. Department of Transportation to consider as the local matching money a series of airport improvements that already are planned, including the purchase of the jetways that Northwest is asking for.
A March 31 deadline for using the federal grant is bearing down - a factor some members cited in throwing their support behind its most likely prospect, Northwest Airlines.
Comparing options One member of the board, Bob Todd, strenuously objected to pursuing Northwest as a first priority over American Airlines service to Miami.
He also said he thinks Northwest will cannibalize passengers from Delta and US Airways, the airport's current carriers.
Tubb disagreed, saying that 70 percent of Gainesville residents now drive to another airport to fly.
"What we want to do is expand the pie here, so that everyone can have a bigger slice," Tubb said.
Todd made a couple of motions aimed at naming American service to Miami as Gainesville's No. 1 priority, but no one supported them.
Todd repeatedly said that American has a contract on the table, and other members repeatedly reminded him that the airline is asking for $4 million in revenue guarantees that the city doesn't have to provide once-daily service to Miami.
Finally, Tubb referred to American's offer as "laughable."
"What they are saying is 'Yeah, right. Show me,' and we can't show them right now (that local passengers will indeed use the service)."
Moving forward, Crider will approach the transportation department about using planned improvements as the local match.
If they won't go for that plan, the Airport Authority will reapproach businesses about their willingness to create a new ticket trust for Northwest.
Airport authority member Pat Bainter expressed a sense of frustration with the seemingly endless negotiations to bring new air service into Gainesville.
"We've danced with a lot of folks over the past couple of years," Bainter said. "I don't want to dance anymore."
Carrie Miller can be reached at (352) 338-3103 or millerc@gvillesun.com.

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