Bishop Airport wants to put a lot of outsiders on the next flight out of Flint.
That's outsiders as in folks within a swath of southeast Michigan from Howell to Port Huron that doesn't quite fit into the home territory of Bishop or its rival airports in Detroit and Lansing.
A new study shows Bishop, facing a tougher fight for passengers than it has in years, gets just 7 percent of the flights booked by residents of this "battleground" area that's bulging with more than 700,000 people. Just a few percent more could mean thousands of added flights at Flint's airport.
Keeping the airport healthy is considered by many as a key to the area's future economic development, in addition to giving fliers more destinations and lower fares.
The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has pledged $10 million to help build a major new shipping facility, and even after two years of declining traffic, healthy passenger growth since 2000 still ranks Bishop among the nation's fast-growing airports.
It's people like Sherry Arnett, owner of Better World Travel in Howell, who will have to be persuaded.
"Flint is very, very competitive, (and) they have advertised in our area, (but) Lansing is working very hard, too," Arnett said.
The limited number of nonstop flights out of Flint and Lansing keeps both airports from swiping more fliers from such prime communities as Clarkston, Rochester Hills and Troy.
Cathy Powell, a FANUC Robotics America employee, said she prefers to fly from Flint because the drive from her Rochester Hills company is easier and using the airport "is a lot more streamlined experience" than using Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus.
"If I can get a direct flight out of Bishop, I prefer it," Powell said. "I would love to use it more often, but the problem is if there isn't a direct flight.
Armed with a new study from Seabury Airline Planning Group LLC, Bishop already is working on its nonstop flights, seeking out meetings with airlines and beefing up advertising and networking.
Although Bishop outperformed other Michigan airports in 2006, traffic in the second quarter dropped 14 percent compared with two years earlier as fares rose sharply, and the number of seats available dropped 11 percent, according to Seabury.
With just a little more promotion and nonstop flights, Seabury says in its executive summary, more of the Howell-to-Port Huron battleground could become Bishop territory.
The study acknowledges Flint is losing 38 percent of fliers in its own home area but concludes the airport's greatest potential depends instead on increasing its share of the battleground area and taking bigger bites from Detroit's home territory.
Seabury is a specialized consulting firm that works with airlines, airport authorities and others.
"I think we've got a huge potential to get (more of) the battle area. There's an incredible potential because just 1 percent makes a big number," said Pat Corfman, Bishop's director of marketing and public relations.
Among the airport's plans: more pitches for new service to airlines not here yet and existing carriers, focused sales calls to the battleground and directly into Detroit Metro territory, and targeted advertising and promotions aimed at the battleground area.
Bishop already is advertising as far east as Sarnia, Ontario, across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, and it's been building relationships in Oakland County for years.
David VanderVeen, Oakland County's director of central services, said he talked to fliers from Saginaw County and Grand Rapids on his trip into Bishop last week on an AirTran Airways flight from Atlanta. That shows the airport's drawing power, he said.
"There's still a lot of potential that hasn't been tapped," VanderVeen said. "The only thing really missing right now is East Coast service."
If talks with airlines produce more flights, passengers might follow fairly easily because of Bishop's reputation for being friendly, easy to get in and out of, and relatively inexpensive.
Many of those "lost" fliers said they would use Flint much more often if they could get the direct flights they want.
Airport sees uptick in traffic
The low-cost carrier plans to start nonstop service to its Atlanta hub and Orlando on Nov. 8 and Sarasota, Fla., in February.