May 18–Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is steering a new course to boost traffic, turning away from its longtime strategy of wooing low-fare airlines.
The new effort will instead focus on the Big Three airlines, two of which already serve the airport, said Executive Director Michael Giardino, detailing the approach in an working session of the Peninsula Airport Commission.
The aim is for more frequent flights and better connections, direct and indirect, to destinations sought by Peninsula travelers.
Easier travel for Peninsula residents is the airport’s main mission, even if this market might seem smaller than Richmond and South Hampton Roads — where the commission had long wanted to attract customers from with low-fare airlines, Giardino said.
Delta and American — two of the Big Three — currently operate 10 flights daily to Atlanta, Charlotte and Philadelphia from Newport News. Giardino is working to convince those two airlines to add more flights to those cities and to consider service to some of their other major hubs, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit or Minneapolis.
He’s also hoping to convince United — the third airline of the Big Three — to begin operating connecting flights from Newport News to Dulles and the airline’s other hubs.
Giardino is working with local businesses, including a meeting just this week with travel managers from Newport News Shipbuilding, Ferguson Enterprises and Liebherr, on a campaign to convince the big airlines that there are enough businesses here to justify adding flights.
“We’re leaking 1,000 passengers a day,” he said.
Giardino said Peninsula business leaders tell him they’re tired of routing their employees and customers through one airport that can be an hours-long traffic jam away and another that’s 65 miles up Interstate 64.
“I’ve had one tell me they sometimes have to put people up in a hotel to make sure they can catch a flight,” Giardino said.
“We’re not trying to poach anyone else’s traffic, we just want ours,” he said.
The airport has long focused on attracting low-fare carriers, such as Allegiant, Frontier and the now-defunct People Express, wooing them with subsidies and other incentives. Previously, AirTran operated a discount service for many years as the airport’s financial mainstay.
Allegiant, Frontier and People Express dropped service in 2014, while the airport’s guarantee of a loan to People Express cost it $4.5 million.
Giardino’s new direction “marks a shift away from the low-cost carriers,” said airport commissioner Rob Coleman, noting that such airlines come and go easily, and often just chase airport subsidies.
Another kind of business travelers — the ones who rely on corporate jets — have stepped up interest in the airport, said assistant executive director Melissa Cheaney.
She said she’s fielded four or five inquiries about hanger space or the possibility of building hangers over the past couple of months.
The airport has the facilities to handle much more traffic, Giardino said, noting that on Tuesday, it handled two flights diverted from New York’s JFK International Airport. Those flights brought a unexpected 340 people for several hours to Newport News.
They kept the airport commission’s restaurant humming, filled trash bins to the brim “and the next day, you wouldn’t have know they’d been there; the staff’s work made things look better than before,” Giardino said.
The airport’s push to expand traffic will also urge Peninsula travelers to take another look at flying from Newport News.
“I’ve been around, I’ve heard the rumbling and grumbling about fares,” Giardino said.
While the most recent federal survey, as of last fall, shows average fares at Newport News are somewhat higher than Norfolk or Richmond, airport marketing efforts going forward plan to focus on asking Peninsula travelers whether a $15 or $20 difference is really worth the travel time of going to another airport, marketing director Jessica Wharton said.
The airport’s finance director, Renee Ford, presented a proposed budget calling for a roughly 4 percent increase in revenue, mostly from proposed increases in landing fees and terminal rents.
Landing fees and the portion of terminal rents based on the number of passengers an airline carries are still well below half of what they probably should be to cover airfield and terminal operating costs, she said.
They are significantly below the fees and rents at Giardino’s old airport, in Rochester, N.Y., where, for instance, Allegiant paid landing fees amounting to $1,200 a flight, compared to the $300 that Newport News charged in what turned out to be a vain attempt for long-term service.
Ford’s proposed budget calls for a 2.6-percent increase in spending, despite a hefty increase of nearly 25 percent for repairs and maintenance, as much of the airport’s aging equipment runs past warranty expiration dates. But a sharp drop in legal expenses, which this year boosted spending on all outside services to $1.15 million, up from a budgeted $590,000, should help the commission hold the line on spending.
Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535
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