BLOUNTVILLE — Tri-Cities Regional Airport plans to use an old financial tool to drum up something new and hard to find in this economy — more flights.
Back in 2002, TCRA began using money from the federal government’s Small Community Air Service Development Grant Program to land Northwest flights to Detroit and Delta Connection service to Orlando.
Both of those flights are now gone, and TCRA is currently feeling the pain from the Northwest-Delta merger by also losing Northwest service to Memphis.
“At the same time, the airport’s only other network carrier, U.S. Airways, is cutting 23 percent of its available seats in the market,” said a TCRA memo sent to airport commissioners.
TCRA’s flight offerings are down to Delta Connection service to Atlanta and Cincinnati, U.S. Airways service to Charlotte and Allegiant Air service to Florida.
So TCRA is again expected to seek funds from the grant program — $500,000 this time — to entice an air carrier to enter the Tri-Cities market with little or no direct cost for one to two years.
The cash isn’t connected to the federal stimulus program, and the airport expects to come up with matching money for the grant.
TCRA will put in $50,000, and airport officials are also looking for private groups to pony up another $25,000 toward the grant.
In the past, the grant money was used in advertising efforts. Cash from the proposed grant, said TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson, could be used to cover landing fees and terminal rent, in addition to ground handling and ticket counter services.
The plan for the grant is to recruit a network carrier to provide non-stop service to a connecting hub that would offer international, western or eastern flights.
Likely candidates, according to the TCRA memo, include American Eagle service to Chicago or Dallas, United Express service to Chicago or Washington Dulles, or Continental Express service to Cleveland, Houston or Newark.
One TCRA goal with the grant funds seems to be getting business travelers back in airplanes.
“While the airport has been successful in attracting Allegiant Air service to three Florida markets, this service does not provide network access to the national transportation system through connecting hubs,” the TCRA memo said. “The Allegiant service has lowered average fares from (TCRA) to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Clearwater/St. Petersburg for leisure passengers and helped the airport maintain passenger total numbers, ... however, its value is limited for business passengers and those needing affordable access to other destinations.”
Still, Wilson noted ridership is getting better because air fares have come down.
U.S. Airways, for instance, recently began a $99 promotion for one-way fares flying out of TCRA.
“Several periods since last January, the network carriers have really had some significant fare sales in place,” Wilson said. “Out of 50 markets there may have been only two markets in some category of fares that anybody had better fares than we did.”
But TCRA’s parking and rental car revenues remain slightly down. “That tends to say the business travel hasn’t started to recover yet,” Wilson noted.
For more about TCRA, go to www.triflight.com.