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TCRA seeks fresh answer to old question: 'Who are our customers?'

Hank Hayes • Apr 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Tri-Cities Regional Airport officials continue to look for the answer to a question that never goes away: Who are our customers?

TCRA’s marketing committee, while recently considering a draft of the airport’s next marketing and air service development budget, pondered spending $30,000 with East Tennessee State University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research to find the latest answer to the question.

Marketing committee member Jerry Repass asked what airport officials do differently as a result of the survey.

“This allows us to track travel trends and problem areas. ... It will help us identify where people want to go and where we’re not going,” TCRA Marketing and Air Service Development Director Melissa Thomas answered in making a pitch to do the survey.

The survey expense was recommended by the committee to the airport’s administration/operations committee while considering TCRA’s 2008-09 spending plan.

The last survey done by ETSU four years ago found the typical TCRA air traveler is a “high-income, well-educated professional” with a median age of just over 48 and a median annual income of more than $75,000.

More than 57 percent of survey respondents used TCRA for business travel. Most booked their travel on the Internet and lived within 25 miles of the airport. Fare prices and the availability of nonstop flights drove their air travel choices, the 2004 survey noted.

But that was then, and this is now, as TCRA attempts to deal with a volatile airline industry struggling to stay in the air amid high fuel prices, late or canceled flights and other complications.

The only thing that seems to be constant, said TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson, is the day-to-day change in the airline business.

“We hear a lot of individual stories about how that flight was late, or about their good or bad travel experience,” Wilson told the committee. “Those (pieces of information) come into us on an ongoing basis ... but all those bits and pieces that we hear weigh in on our decision making. This (ETSU survey) is more of a formal process to go out and take a snapshot of our total market.”

While TCRA has added a booking engine to its Web site since the last ETSU survey was done, much of the airport’s marketing budget is still spent on television advertising.

The airport also spends thousands of dollars annually on analyzing flight routes, airfares and “leakage” — the number of travelers who drive to use other Southeast airports.

But new twists to TCRA’s marketing effort appear to be on the way. An upgraded airport Web site is expected to be launched later this month. The marketing committee also wants to add three voting members from tourism and economic development groups to bring new ideas to the table.

Thomas noted that because TCRA is more oriented toward business travel, the airport’s level of air service remains relatively stable.

While most TCRA travelers use Delta Connection and US Airways carriers, overall airport ridership has been inching upward due to an influx of passengers using low-fare Allegiant Air service to Florida.

“As long as (airlines) can capture a traveler, they don’t care where they come from,” said Airport Commission member Dan Mahoney, the marketing committee’s chairman.

For more about TCRA go to www.triflight.com.

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