FWA travelers covet nonstop, eastbound flight

November 29th, 2013

News Coverage:

FWA travelers covet nonstop, eastbound flight

Grant could lessen startup costs for route

Posted: Friday, November 29, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 7:26 am, Fri Nov 29, 2013.

By Doug LeDuc

Local officials are using a survey designed for business air travelers to build a case they hope will persuade an airline to add a permanent nonstop eastbound flight to scheduled service from Fort Wayne.

The five direct flights business travelers said they wanted most in the survey included two that would be new — to New York and Washington, D.C. — and three flights it wanted the airport to keep, to Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando, Fla.

Service to Minneapolis was the only other destination among the top 10 in the survey the Fort Wayne International Airport already had. The other four were Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Denver and Las Vegas. Los Angeles would be out of reach for commuter aircraft.

When asked about the possibility of a private-public partnership that would reduce an airline’s cost of adding the service at the airport, 73 percent of respondents expressed support for the concept.

It could be a key for air service development at the airport.

“The numbers show people are going there and it has been our top-requested destination for some time – that’s what I’ve heard is that we need a Northeast destination,” said Jessica Miller, air service and community relations manager for FWA. “It’s very important to the community and something we are pursuing.”

The dozen destinations most traveled to for business purposes in the survey included Philadelphia, and New York and Washington, D.C., were high on the list. Travel agencies serving the region also reported eastern air hubs were popular for business travel.

The survey showed 58 percent of respondents reported their companies flew internationally, and Deborah Sorg, corporate travel manager for Grueninger Travel Service, said “all three cities would afford us more international connections.”

Some international trips from Fort Wayne would be easier via Philadelphia, New York or Washington, D.C., because they would require travelers to only make one connecting stop on the way to their destination, she said.

“International travelers hate to fly out of Indianapolis because when they get back … they may have flown overnight, all night long, then have three hours to get home. It is not fun.”

Because they have many attractions, New York and Washington, D.C., are popular for leisure as well as business travel out of Fort Wayne, Sorg said.

Any time Fort Wayne International can add a direct flight, “there always are advantages to customers saving time and saving headaches. Nobody likes to transfer in Chicago during the winter and it’s the same in Detroit,” she said.

“Any new service to Fort Wayne is a boon in my own opinion. At a travel agency roundtable I attended in Fort Wayne there were a handful of agents and they all said the same thing,” Sorg said.

“We know how many people we have who are driving to an alternate airport to depart from, and based on the service and based on the pricing, a new flight would reduce the number of people that are flying from airports other than Fort Wayne.”

The survey was developed with input from a Regional Air Service Committee co-convened by the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Vision 2020 initiative.

A little more than 350 individuals took the online survey during the first half of the year. After it was completed in July, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. had the results analyzed and they were released Nov. 21.

Although it was designed for business travelers, anyone who noticed a link to it on Fort Wayne International Airport’s website could take it, and 40 percent of the respondents were leisure travelers.

The first question in the survey asked if the respondents flew for business or leisure/pleasure purposes, and “if they said ‘leisure’ it would skip to the customer service questions at the end or airport amenity area, so we knew who the leisure travelers were and their data was obviously a little different,” Miller said.

The airport had directed readers to the survey in its newsletter, as had Greater Fort Wayne; 60 percent of the respondents were business travelers.

The survey was designed for business travelers because their air travel spending habits are more persuasive to airlines when they are planning routes. They are more likely than leisure travelers to pay full price for air travel arranged closer to the date of departure, which makes them more profitable. Business travel also can be less seasonal, which can help keep seats full throughout the year.

Mainstream carriers with daily scheduled service at Fort Wayne International “love our market because it’s a business travel market and they know they’re going to be profitable here,” Miller said.

Allegiant Travel Co. has found success locally with a different model; it specializes in leisure travel and does not fly every day out of Fort Wayne to the destinations it reaches from FWA.

Among the mainstream carriers, “our air fares are pretty competitive — often within $100 to $150 of South Bend and Indianapolis — but will be slightly higher here because we have a lot of business travelers whose companies are paying for their travel,” Miller said.

When the airport encounters evidence of demand for a direct flight that is not offered by the airlines serving it, “that certainly starts the conversation with new carriers,” she said.

“We have had conversations with Southwest, US Airways and Frontier — we talk to quite a few carriers to keep the lines of communication open just in case an opportunity were to open down the road,” Miller said.

Airlines already at FWA also could be approached about adding a direct eastbound route out of Fort Wayne, and she said that would be less expensive than bringing a carrier to the airport to start new service.

American would gain a Philadelphia hub if it is able to complete a merger it announced earlier this year with US Airways, and that could provide an opportunity to expand service at FWA.

“The last time we met with US Airways was in October, and they really like the idea,” Miller said. “But, they can’t make a whole lot of decisions right now.

“At this point we’re kind of just waiting on this merger to settle because they’re not meeting with many airports as they bring together the two airlines.”

The airport authority was awarded a $600,000 grant by the Office of Aviation Analysis through its Small Community Air Service Development Program to support efforts to expand service at FWA.

In the grant application, “our first ask was to put the money toward US Airways toward Philadelphia. We asked as secondary, ‘Can we also target other carriers to a Northeast hub?’” Miller said.

“What we’re going to try to do is leverage that money with an incentive package we can give to a carrier that would lessen its startup costs and kind of take the risk away from it and share (the risk) with ourselves. It’s a risk-sharing incentive plan.

“It’s almost required anymore that airports share the risk with the carrier when they’re launching a new route,” she said. “The startup risks are real high and they want to know the community is invested in the route also and want to know we’re behind them.”

The details of a risk-sharing incentive plan have yet to be worked out.