Northwest's last Gainesville flight today


Northwest Airlines started service in Gainesville less than two years ago.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 30, 2006 at 11:42 p.m.
When Dr. Ram Rantakaram's family flew to India in January, they chose Northwest Airlines to fly out of Gainesville. Flying through its Memphis hub cut hours off their trip.
In February, Northwest announced it would cease flights to Gainesville Regional Airport. On Saturday, Rantakaram flew Saturdayon one of the airline's last flights to meet his wife and three sons. They'll be forced to take a different carrier to return home.
"We didn't have a clue that Northwest wasn't going to come back," he said.
Northwest's final flight leaves Gainesville at noon today, less than two years after the airline started service here. Following a private plane's crash into the passenger terminal on Easter that killed three people, the airline's departure continues a rough couple of months for the airport.
But Rick Crider, chief executive officer of the airport, said he prefers to accentuate the positive. He pointed to the groundbreaking last month on a small-jet maintenance facility and millions of dollars in improvements being made in the coming months on the passenger terminal and runway.
"You have to take the good with the bad," he said.
Gainesville has spent years trying to add an airline and used $660,000 in federal funds to lure Northwest in 2004. An affiliate of the carrier, Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines, provided service to the airport under the name Northwest Airlink.
A Pinnacle spokesman said the airline's nine employees were offered employment at other airports, though he didn't know how many have accepted the offer. Pinnacle's manager will move to the same position at Continental Airlines' regional affiliate in Gainesville, according to officials.
Northwest's departure means three airlines remain, offering 14 daily flights to and from Gainesville. Crider said the airline's decision was based on a post-bankruptcy plan to ground inefficient jets and move newer models to busier airports.
The carrier's success in filling more than three-quarters of its seats bodes well for attracting another airline, he said.
"We're a very viable market with a lot of business travel," he said.
But it's a difficult environment for small airports to add service, said Diane Johnston, spokeswoman for Augusta Regional Airport in Georgia. The top 150 airports in the country account for more than 97 percent of all passengers, she said.
"We're at the bottom of the totem poll as far as the airlines are concerned," she said.
Augusta went through a similar experience to Gainesville, Johnston said. The airport and community raised more than $1 million to guarantee revenue and refurbish the air terminal to lure Continental. Soon after fulfilling its 18-month commitment, the airline left in 2004.
Airlines are going though a painful but needed readjustment, said Christina Siebold, spokeswoman for Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport in Tennessee. Northwest and Delta Air Lines are pulling 20 percent of capacity out of their systems and small airports could feel the cuts, she said.
"It's not just about making money for these airlines," she said. "It's about making more money than the next city."
Gainesville passengers will likely be forced to choose between traveling to distant airports or paying more here, said Heather Gibson, an associate professor in tourism, recreation and sports management at the University of Florida.
Gibson said UF professors typically have limited travel budgets, so they might be pushed to Jacksonville or elsewhere for cheaper flights. Other passengers are also more likely to choose the two-hour or more drive to save $100 or more, she said.
"There's a threshold of how much you're going to pay for convenience," she said.
Gainesville airport officials say they're attune to such concerns. Jon Morris, a member of the airport authority, said he thinks the crash at the airport will have little effect on passengers as compared to flight costs.
"The thing always on people's minds are seat availability and price," he said.
Rantakaram said he's enjoyed having Northwest at the airport for the past couple of years. He worries the airline's departure will mean the remaining carriers raise prices.
"Once you have less choice, the airlines are going to want to make an extra buck," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.

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