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Conversations are underway between Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport and discount carriers to try to breathe new life into the airport, but there is nothing firm to announce and no public timeline for when any news may be available.
In the last three years, Newport-News Williamsburg International Airport has lost four discount carriers — AirTran, PEOPLExpress, Allegiant and Frontier — leaving only Delta and American Airlines, which offer service to Philadelphia, Charlotte and Atlanta.
The compounding losses have caused the airport to go from more than 1 million passengers per year from 2005 through 2011 to 532,380 in 2014.
Airport Executive Director Ken Spirito said Thursday at a James City County Economic Development Authority meeting the airport is continuing to work to try to woo more airlines to fly to and from the airport. He declined to offer the EDA members any specific strategies or tactics the airport is using to lure airlines because “our competitors are watching every move we make.”
“Every airport is knocking on the door of the same few airlines that are left,” he said. “Strategically — yes, we have changed our direction. We are looking at things differently internally and externally. We have to be reserved on how we disclose our tactics.”
He said the airline industry has consolidated greatly in the last five years, leading to a situation where four airlines — Southwest, Delta, United and American — control 87 percent of the domestic market. The remaining 13 percent is composed of low-fare carriers.
Since two of the major carriers are already present at the airport, that leaves Southwest, United and the low-fare carriers to target. Southwest ended all of its operations at the airport in 2012 after it acquired AirTran, a low-fare carrier that at its peak brought about 500,000 passengers to the airport annually.
Spirito said all of the consolidation in the industry has caused the major carriers to focus on serving huge cities. The discount carriers have flocked to places like Cleveland, Memphis, Minneapolis and Cincinnati, where the major carriers have left a void.
“They want to come in and bottom feed,” he said of the low-fare carriers.
Consequently, smaller markets like Newport News are being left behind, Spirito said. In the arrangement he described, both major carriers and low-fare carriers are enjoying record profits by offering less service and focusing on strong markets.
“The airlines are so overwhelmed with opportunities that make them money that they can literally close their eyes and throw a dart on a community and make money on it,” he said.
Frontier Airlines, for example, left Newport News in January despite being what an airport spokeswoman described as a “strong performer.” She said the airline routinely had full flights leaving the airport, but that organizational shuffling at Frontier caused the airline to focus its energy elsewhere.
In the past six months, Frontier has launched several new flights to and from markets like the ones Spirito described, according to news releases from the airline.
“They’re not leaving because it’s not working out financially, but they have different strategies and opportunities that leave areas like ours squeezed,” Spirito said. “We’ve got some prospects on the table and we’re actively talking to them.”
The EDA invited Spirito to its Thursday meeting to provide an update on the airport’s work to attract more airlines. The EDA is a public body composed of county citizens who can buy and sell property for businesses, issue bonds to help fund business projects and participate in programs designed to spur the area’s economy. The EDA did not take any action regarding the airport at Thursday’s meeting.
Supervisor John McGlennon (Roberts) is the James City County Board of Supervisors liaison to the EDA. He attended Thursday’s meeting and asked Spirito why public dollars should continue to be invested in the airport if the airlines are not “making the decision based on if they can make a nice profit here?”
Spirito said it is critical that investments continue to be made into the airport’s infrastructure to maintain the best chance of attracting another airline to Newport News.
“We have to continue doing it or otherwise we will never get there,” he said.
All three Historic Triangle localities contribute funding to the Regional Air Service Enhancement Committee, a group that can allocate funds to help improve the airport. In the current fiscal year — which ends June 31 — the City of Williamsburg contributed $4,245, the James City County EDA gave $26,804 and York County gave $24,057. None of the three localities provide any funding to the airport’s operations budget.
EDA Member Tom Tingle said it is important to have an airport nearby because it helps local businesses connect to clients and distant markets. He also said the “young creative class” likes to be able to travel quickly, meaning proximity to an airport is essential for that group.
Though the airport has been losing commercial airline customers, its private plane and corporate jet traffic has been strong, Spirito said. But to grow the commercial airline business at Newport News, he said the airport is going to have to overcome the idea that the Peninsula is heavily populated with a “transient military population.”
Federal sequestration has caused airlines to be skittish about investing in a market so dependent upon the federal government — more than 41 percent of the economy in Hampton Roads is attributable to spending by the Department of Defense, according to a 2013 study of the area’s economy by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.