TCRA to ramp up flight recruitment efforts in the spring

Hank Hayes • Dec 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Tri-Cities Regional Airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson said Thursday it might be next spring before new flight recruitment efforts get off the ground to offset flight cuts related to the Delta-Northwest merger.

Wilson briefed TCRA’s Administration/Operations Committee on the state of air service after the committee went over the airport’s financial report for the past fiscal year.

Last week, Delta announced it would eliminate TCRA-to-Cincinnati service early next year.

TCRA’s Northwest service to Memphis and Detroit was cut in early 2009.

That leaves TCRA with Delta service to Atlanta, US Airways Express flights to Charlotte and Allegiant Air service to Florida.

In contrast, TCRA’s closest peer airport, Asheville Regional Airport, seems to be holding on to its air service in Western North Carolina.

That airport’s Web site (www.flyavl.com) lists Continental service to Newark and Houston, Delta service to New York and United flights to Chicago among its offerings.

Each of those flight routes has been on TCRA’s air service recruitment wish list.

Nonetheless, Wilson was more upbeat about gaining new air service instead of dwelling on lost flights.

“The Airport Commission continuously looks for the opportunity to meet with any airline about air service,” he said. “We’ve been in that mode for a number of years in an ongoing effort to bring in new service. As far as the loss of Cincinnati service, that has not changed.”

He added TCRA isn’t seeing a dramatic change in traveler leakage to other surrounding airports.

“Our passenger numbers year to date are up around 10 percent,” Wilson noted. “That’s a good sign for us. The load factors (the percentage of passengers filling up seats on a flight) of our current carriers are up. Starting last spring and through the fall, they’ve had some significant fare sales. We think that has helped keep passengers here locally.”

Historically, business travelers have accounted for about 60 percent of TCRA’s customer base, according to the airport’s financial report.

“While that percentage has varied through the years depending on fare levels, (TCRA’s) air service and fare structure continue to be geared toward business travel, providing the stability to weather economic downturns,” the report said. “However, with a business market and only two network carriers (Delta and US Airways), (TCRA) is subject to higher fares and potentially vulnerable to airline bankruptcies and mergers.”

The report suggested TCRA’s travel trends may continue to show reduced passenger loads in the near future.

But the report also pointed out TCRA’s employees can hold down cost year to year, as airport expenses in the last fiscal year were below the $5.4 million spent in 2006.

Wilson indicated that after Delta’s Cincinnati route goes away next year, it will give TCRA “the opportunity to talk to airlines to say there is more opportunity” to come to the Tri-Cities.

“We are also talking to our current carriers about expanding service,” he added. “We would love to see Delta return service to Detroit or Memphis.”

TCRA is a joint venture of Bristol, Tenn.; Bristol, Va.; Washington County, Tenn.; Sullivan County; Kingsport; and Johnson City.

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