In struggling economy, Gainesville airport's goal is to hold steady


Andy Coll, left, with US Airways prepares to check in passengers at Gainesville Regional Airport on Tuesday, January 5, 2010.

Aaron E. Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 5:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 5:22 p.m.

The Gainesville Regional Airport is always trying to lure more carriers and more flights, but the top goal for 2010 is more reflective of the realities of the economy in general and the plight of airlines in particular: just to keep the services they already have.

To that end, the airport's current $12,000 ad campaign -- in television, radio, print and billboards -- draws attention to the airport's "other" carrier, US Airways.

The number of US Airways passengers was down nearly 10 percent for the fiscal year ending Sept. 31, 2009, from 102,019 in and out the prior year to 92,219. The load factor -- or percentage of seats filled -- was down from 72.9 percent to 66.9 percent.

The airport is trying to remind fliers about US Airways by promoting a drawing in which a free roundtrip and three-night hotel stay for two to New York City will be awarded. The giveaway ends Feb. 11.

Airport CEO Allan Penksa said the airport is a tiny piece of its carriers' business, so airport officials have to find ways to keep the airlines' attention.

"If they can't make money, they'll take that airplane somewhere else where it's going to make money," he said.

Airport flights overall have fared better, as an increase in Delta passengers has nearly offset US Airways' losses. December numbers are not in yet, but overall airport flights are likely down slightly for the 2009 calendar year, from 282,024 in 2008 to somewhere between 279,000 and 281,000 in 2009, Penksa said.

There are signs that holiday travel turned around US Airways' fortunes in Gainesville, even before the ad campaign began, he said.

Delta's increase -- from 162,453 passengers in fiscal year 2008 to 176,481 -- is partly due to the addition of two daily roundtrip flights, but load factors were also up for fiscal year 2009, from 71.7 percent to 72.3 percent.

Penksa said Delta does well in the Southeast with its huge number of options from Atlanta and has a very loyal frequent flier following that appeals to business travelers, who make up a bulk of local fliers.

Delta's two additional flights would be a drop in the bucket at a major hub, but amounts to a 20 percent increase at an airport that went from 10 total flights to 12 on most days.

Other changes last year include the opening of the Tailwind concessionaire in secure and nonsecure areas, following a $7 million renovation to modernize the terminal that was completed in 2008.

"For the size of the town and the region -- this is not Orlando -- we have a first-class airport out there," said Win Phillips, vice president of research for the University of Florida and this year's chairman of the Gainesville-Alachua County Regional Airport Authority. "Ocala would love to have this airport."

The economy has hurt fuel sales, hangar rentals, parking fees and other revenue sources, Penksa said. As if that weren't enough, one of its biggest tenants, Eclipse Aviation, went bankrupt last year, eliminating 16 percent of the airport's revenue while leaving it on the hook for $505,000 annual loan debt with few prospects to fill the space in this environment.

The airport has almost no wiggle room to raise fees on the commercial airline and general aviation businesses, which have their own troubles. Airport officials have cut expenses where they can, such as leaving some jobs unfilled, using temporary workers where they can, and adjusting the employee health benefits.

Penksa said a proposal favored by some U.S. House members as part of next month's Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill to add more firefighters, and hence equipment and space, at airports would hurt.

"It could put us out of business," he said.

Phillips, a two-year authority member, said he has advocated flying out of Gainesville for 20 years for the convenience and to save time.

Airlines often charge more to fly out of Gainesville, without the number of flights and passengers that drive down prices in Jacksonville, Orlando or Tampa, the main competitors to the local airport, but Phillips said once he adds up the cost of gas and parking, plus the value of his time, the added cost is worth it.

Michelle Danisovszky, manager of public relations and government affairs for the airport, keeps track of airline fares at the other airports to make sure they don't get too out of line with what they're charging in Gainesville.

Penksa said the airlines responded by lowering fares here a couple of times in the last six months.

The airport offers a Low Fare Alert in conjunction with Kayak.com to highlight fares below $300 to major U.S. destinations over the next three months. Danisovszky said about 4,000 people are signed up for the weekly e-mails.

This week's alert includes more than 30 U.S. destinations, including $236 to Washington, D.C., and $248 to New York City.

Getting more people to think about using the local airport is an ongoing goal. Penksa said airport officials have worked with the Gainesville-Alachua County Chamber of Commerce to come up with ways to get local businesses and employees to use the airport for business travel.

Local air service is a deal maker or breaker for many businesses looking to relocate, and therefore a top priority of economic development officials.

Fliers also express interest in having more carriers, more flights and more direct destinations before they'll start using the local airport more often.

But to get more flights, the airport has to show there is more demand.

"It's a chicken and egg," Penksa said. "We can't get carriers interested in our market if we can't show we're growing and there's a demand."

Even with more demand, a 2009 survey by the Airport Cooperative Research Program shows that airlines are more interested in incentive programs than demographics.

Penksa said the airport is willing to offer incentives such as a break on rent and landing fees to help establish service, but said the airport doesn't have the resources for the kind of multi-million-dollar revenue guarantees many airlines are seeking. And he doesn't think the community has a taste for ponying up that kind of money when the business and government sectors are hurting along with the economy.

American Airlines decided not to offer twice-daily flights to Miami when the airport wouldn't guarantee the $2 million to $3 million the airline forecast it would lose.

Penksa said the airport will still try to lure more air service this year, although airlines continue to cut the number of flights nationwide. A South Florida route such as to Miami continues to be a top priority, as are direct flights to Washington, D.C., New York and a westward destination such as Dallas.

He said feels that a low-cost carrier could be successful in Gainesville.

"Our goal is to try to get them to try it, but they're not in a position right now," Penska said.

After spending $40 million on capital upgrades over the past six years, the airport has a number of projects on the table for this year, including work to taxiways, funded mostly through federal and state grants, including:

- A new rental car service facility with added parking to accomodate more rental companies.

- A new bus canopy and taxi stand at the terminal.

- The first phase of a photovoltaic solar system at the terminal.

- The first phase of a new access road off Waldo Road, once a consultant determines whether or not practice bombs from a World War II area practice range are still buried near the airport.

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