News Article - March 23, 2007

Airport starts campaign to keep Delta in Delaware  
  Short lines, no security hassles, on-time flights, free parking. And plenty of empty seats. When Delta Air Lines landed at New Castle Airport 10 months ago, officials had high hopes the airline would generate renewed interest in the small, often overlooked airport. But after a summer in which flights were about 61 percent full, volume has dropped, raising the specter of previous airlines that jumped ship -- most recently Shuttle America in 2000. Now, with Delta flights in and out of the airport only about half-full, officials hope to boost traffic by playing up the airport's convenience, positioning it as an alternative to the crowded and delay-prone Philadelphia International Airport.

   The Delaware airport has launched a $75,000 marketing campaign, with newspaper and radio spots, a new Web site, and 33 billboards in the counties of New Castle and Kent in Delaware, Cecil in Maryland, Salem in New Jersey and Chester in Pennsylvania., in an attempt to woo travelers -- especially business travelers -- away from the Philadelphia and Baltimore airports. Officials hope the effort will not only entice Delta, its only carrier, to stick around, but draw other airlines to offer commercial service. Officials also expect at least one carrier, which they did not name, will announce in the next 60 to 90 days whether it will begin service at the airport by November.

   "This is about raising our profile, letting customers know we're here," said Steve Williams, airports director for the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which operates the New Castle Airport. But the airport faces a history of failed commercial service attempts, and a trend that does not favor smaller regional airports. Sluggish traffic at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa., and Trenton-Mercer Airport in New Jersey shouldn't serve as a cautionary tale for New Castle, said Mike Boyd, president of the Colorado-based aviation consulting firm the Boyd Group. "New Castle is in a unique situation," he said. "Wilmington is a major legal and commercial center."

   The state's abundance of corporate business, he said, means there are plenty of business travelers the airport should be courting. And business traffic, he said, is what today's airlines are most interested in, because business travelers tend to be brand loyal, collecting frequent flier miles even if it means paying more for a ticket. Wade Jones is one of those loyal business travelers -- he said he's been flying Delta for 20 years. And he's thrilled, he said, that Delta began flying out of New Castle, allowing him to bypass the Philadelphia airport when he heads to Wilmington from Atlanta for monthly business trips. "This is so much more convenient," he said this week as he waited a mere five minutes to pick up his suitcase from the baggage claim. "People should really take advantage."

   In June, Delta began nonstop service from New Castle to Atlanta, the airline's hub. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a division of Delta, flies two round trips a day. Each plane can carry 40 passengers. From Atlanta, travelers can connect to about 300 destinations. While New Castle Airport officials had hoped Delta would expand its service this spring -- with more flights per day to more destinations -- the airline has no immediate plans to do so. Delta would like to see between 60 percent and 70 percent of seats full, said Tracy Yakutchik, New Castle Airport's station manager for a subsidiary of Delta. Mainline Delta tries to maintain a 75 percent to 85 percent capacity, she said. "Delta wants us here," she said. "But there's a learning curve." Long-term, passenger loads are increasing, she said.

   For example, as of Wednesday, the airline had carried 815 passengers through New Castle Airport this month, one passenger more than it carried all of January. Williams said he knows traffic could be better, which is why the airport has embarked on this marketing campaign. After what he called a "checkered history" with failed commercial service, the airport wants to "do everything we can to make sure Delta's service is a success, but more importantly that air service is sustainable," Williams said.

   United Airlines, Shuttle America, and Crown Airlines all pulled out of the airport in the last 20 years. Williams attributed the failures to the destinations, the times of the flights, and the lack of awareness about the airport. Despite its history of failed attempts, Boyd said, he believes the New Castle Airport, as long as it keeps its eye on business travelers, has a viable future. James Wolfe, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, said the key to the airport's success will be its convenience. "To businesspeople, time is money," he said.

   Expanded service at the airport also would trigger economic development, contributing to the car rental, hotel and restaurant businesses, said J. Harry Feldman, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau. In 2005, New Castle County saw 2.73 million visitors, 2 percent of whom came by plane. Williams said that because the 1,250-acre airport's three runways are underused, the airport's current infrastructure -- which has received $30 million in upgrades during the last decade -- could handle about nine flights per day, or 281,000 passengers a year. "We can succeed," he said. "All the numbers are there."

   Feldman said he would hate to see Delaware go back to being the only state without regularly scheduled commercial air service, even if Philadelphia is so close. "We don't want Delta to say they didn't succeed because people didn't know they were there," he said.

Source - Deleware Online