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Business & Technology

Low-fare airline's arrival has things looking up at TCRA

March 17th, 2007 10:42 pm by Hank Hayes



BLOUNTVILLE - Last Wednesday was different, but Tri-Cities Regional Airport officials haven't had many occasions to smile while recruiting new flights during this decade.


The announced arrival of Allegiant Air - the airport's first-ever low-fare airline - marked only the third successful new air service commitment since Sept. 11, 2001, according to TCRA.


Since Sept. 11, the aviation industry has been battered with terrorist worries, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scare, and concerns about pandemics, in addition to the bankruptcy of four network carriers and record high fuel prices.


An important yardstick for TCRA's progress, however, remains the number of new airlines recruited.


Besides Allegiant's arrival, here is what TCRA has experienced in new air service recruitment since Sept. 11:


• Shortly after Sept. 11, American Connection began service between TCRA and Nashville, but the airline left.


"That service continued until fuel prices started to increase sharply in August 2005," Melissa Thomas, TCRA's director of marketing and air service development, said in an e-mail. "The company chose to focus on essential air service markets where they were guaranteed a flat fee by the federal government to provide service."


• Delta Connection began nonstop Orlando service in December 2004 - air service that now faces competition from Allegiant's TCRA to Orlando Sanford Airport flight.


Thomas said TCRA's other air service development efforts are now focused on United Express service to Washington Dulles and Chicago, and Continental service to Cleveland, Houston and Newark.


Thomas' annual budget is about $500,000. That covers administrative and office expenses, research and travel, advertising and communications.


"Some years are higher and some years are lower depending on the revenue forecast and projects that need to be accomplished during the year," she explained.


The Federal Aviation Administration said passenger demand growth was "weak" in 2006 following two strong years in 2004 and 2005.


"Increased competition is prompting network carriers to continue to cut costs and prices in markets served by low-cost carriers. This is good news for the flying public," an FAA forecast said. "In spite of increasing competition, the network carriers are beginning to see a turnaround in their finances. ... The 2007 forecast for commercial aviation calls for a return to growth and over time ... the industry is expected to grow significantly."


With hopes of landing new customers, TCRA has a new "Want It, Book It, Be There" TV ad campaign running and touting its new online booking engine, located at www.triflight.com.


"It's doing well. We've had about 159 bookings in two months," Thomas said of the booking engine. "That's really right now where we expected. It will take awhile for that to grow."


Still, travelers continue to be sensitive to fare prices.


One woman who asked not to be identified called Allegiant's announced $59 one-way fare to Orlando Sanford Airport "misleading."


She said that with the added fees - including baggage, the passenger facility charge, seat selection and 9/11 security - a round-trip fare ended up costing her $160.


"It was quite a shock, but the cheapest I've paid in a long time," she noted.


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


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