Airline Travel Bank could expand AirTran service

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Oct. 01--GULFPORT -- Local businesses and individuals are being asked to pledge their support to keep AirTran flying and increase service at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

The Gulf Coast Business Council and Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce have been working for months to establish an Airline Travel Bank. This week's announcement that Southwest Airlines is buying AirTran accelerated the need for the program, said Jack Norris, president of the Business Council.

Right now the two groups are looking for non-binding pledges to gauge interest in an air bank, said Norris. They've set a pledge deadline of Oct. 5 in order for the changes to take place by January.

If there is enough interest, those who responded will be contacted about joining the bank and depositing a percentage of their travel budget in the account.

"You're essentially asking people to pre-purchase tickets," Norris said. Companies and individuals deposit funds in the air bank, which would be secured by a local bank.

"In return they would receive a debit card to pay for tickets throughout 2011. The funds would be returned if AirTran leaves the market.

"We have had several responses already that are positive," he said.

The goal is to show Coast support for AirTran, the only low-cost carrier at the Gulfport airport, and encourage the airline to provide daily service to Atlanta.

Currently AirTran flies between Gulfport and Atlanta and Tampa three days a week. The current contract between Aviation Advantage at Gulfport and AirTran extends through July 2011.

A similar program was successful in Pensacola to get AirTran into that airport.

"Competitive air service is critical to economic development and our tourism industry," Norris said. "The casinos have been supporting AirTran service for a number of years," and he said that has benefitted the whole community with lower prices.

For information call the Gulf Coast Business Council at 897-2020.

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