Can the TRI get more flights?

Hank Hayes • Dec 18, 2017 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE – Going into 2018, Tri-Cities Airport’s main challenge remains the same – getting new flights.

The airport has Delta Connection service to Atlanta, American Airlines service to Charlotte and Allegiant Air service to Florida, but hasn’t grown airline service in more than five years.

Airport Marketing and Air Service Development Director Kristi Haulsee recently told Airport Authority commissioners she is seeking a federal grant extension to help subsidize new service.

American Airlines, Haulsee noted, is upgrading to larger aircraft next year.

Besides Haulsee, the effort to recruit more flights falls on the shoulders of Airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson who addressed these questions:

What’s going on with air service development?

“At the end of the day, the local economic conditions are really what attracts the airlines. So we, as we have our regular duties with the Airport Authority, regularly talk with the airlines and look for opportunities to meet with the airlines. We target specific markets we think are most likely (to add service). For us, that’s Chicago and Dallas, either American or United (Airlines). American would potentially be Chicago and/or Dallas. United would potentially be Chicago. We meet with them at least annually, most years a couple of times a year. They compare our market to every other market that has the potential for them to serve. They put their aircraft where they can make the most money. A lot of the factors they look at are population, is the population growing, the income level of that population and then just the overall economic activity which generates the need for air travel. We continue to present our region as an opportunity. What we don’t know is how that stacks up to the other markets those airlines have. If ours is the most revenue producing market, it will gain the service.”

What is our region’s best selling point?

“There’s limited competition now with two airlines, Delta and American. Service to the two hubs are great … Atlanta and Charlotte give us connections to the world, but any airline that adds a new destination, maybe Chicago or Dallas, both are directions where we don’t have service, meaning that a connecting hub to the north is going to be an efficient route drawing business to the north or west. Dallas is a connection to the southwest we don’t have … that could go to Central America or out west.”

Why aren’t the airlines expanding service? Is it because they are stockpiling cash and returning money to investors?

“I think all those factors go into it. The airlines are growing at an industry average, between one and a half to two and a half percent. That’s really a growth of total seats. What that may mean is larger aircraft going from 150 seats to 220 seats. That’s not the type of aircraft that our market can support. We’re in the 50, 70, 90 to 100 seat range. Those fleets are always shifting around. As bigger aircraft go to bigger markets, they could come into our market. As the regional economy grows, that’s our best selling point to attract more air service.”

How will the GOP tax cut impact air service?

“I am certainly no expert on the tax cut … if it has the result of spurring economic growth on the businesses we have doing more in sales or new businesses coming in, that would grow travel and attract more air service.”

What is your business plan for next year?

Aerospace Park (the airport’s site for aviation-related economic development) is a major focus in what we’re doing, but it’s not our only focus … we continue to meet with businesses to see what their travel needs are … passenger traffic ultimately generates about 80 percent of the revenue for our operations … general aviation is an area we focus on as well. Corporate aviation is growing. Business use of corporate aircraft services … we’re seeing increased activity there … our hangars are full.”

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