Study Fuels Hope for Airline Service at McKinney

The prospects for airline operations at Collin County Regional Airport are promising enough for further study of passenger demand and flight opportunities, McKinney officials say.

Continuing business and residential growth north of Dallas, the area's above-average wealth and worsening road congestion across the region are likely to increase demand for commercial service at the McKinney-owned airport, consultants conclude in a recent study.

But Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field already serve the region and can grow. Most of the people who might fly from suburban McKinney live within 30 minutes of those dominant airports. City financial incentives probably would be needed to land an airline, the study predicts.

And as the McKinney City Council continues negotiations with investors interested in airport development, some council members say they want to extend the taxpayer-funded study, focusing on marketing the 28-year-old airport and gauging airline interest.

"We don't have all the information we need to get something done," Mayor Bill Whitfield said.

Council members Bill Cox and Pete Huff agree. "Let's keep moving," Mr. Cox said.

"There's got to be a dozen candidates, and I believe one or more of those will come," said Mr. Huff. "Nothing's on the table now, but I think something will happen in five years."

Charter airlines, such as Allegiant Air and Sky Value USA, and regional affiliate airlines, such as Delta Connection, Continental Express and Northwest Airlink, are among the most promising candidates for McKinney, according to the study by Burlingame, Calif.-based Jacobs Consultancy. So are regional fliers such as ExpressJet and Mesa, the study suggests.

City sales pitches no doubt will include the consultants' projection that Collin County Regional would compete now with D/FW and Love Field for almost 3.3 million potential passengers. The study derives that market pool from the estimated population within 30 minutes of the McKinney airport, plus that of Grayson and Hunt counties, and assumes 2.5 annual round-trip flights per person.

The 2.5-trip multiplier compares with 2.25 for the Dallas-Fort Worth region and 1.46 for the state, according to the study. It exceeds the regional rate because incomes are higher in the McKinney airport's likely service area, and wealthier people generally travel more, the study says.

The market projection is "probably pretty close," airport Director Ken Wiegand said. "How much of that pool can we attract, that's the question. It depends on what [airport facilities] we put on the ground and how we market it."

Improved outlook

Mr. Wiegand said he is encouraged by the study, which comes three years after a report that wasn't as rosy.

Different consultants, updating the McKinney airport's master plan, wrote in 2004 that "it would appear unlikely" that the airport could attract commercial service "in the near future" because of its proximity to D/FW Airport and Love Field. Chances may improve in the long term, they wrote, as growth and traffic congestion increase.

The master plan study, by Columbia, S.C.-based Wilbur Smith Associates, didn't explore potential airline service with the depth of the current report, Mr. Wiegand said.

The airport director and other city officials say they believe commercial service would draw passengers who value convenience: shorter drive times, cheaper parking and shorter lines than they face at D/FW Airport and Love Field. D/FW is about 35 miles from Collin County Regional, while Love Field is about 29 miles away.

"D/FW still has plenty of capacity to grow, is one of the lowest-cost airports of any major airport in the country, and we see no reason to fracture the air service system in North Texas at this time," Ken Capps, D/FW's vice president for public affairs, wrote in an e-mail.

With flights to and from McKinney, "you're not going to make a dent on those people," Mr. Whitfield said.

But "it can take me an hour or more to drive to D/FW or Love Field," the mayor said. "I believe given an option, a lot of people would consider catching a plane in McKinney."

Most important would be routes, frequency of flights and types of aircraft using the airport, Mr. Wiegand said. "Service level is everything," he said.

Ticket costs would be less critical, at least among corporate passengers, he said. "We're in a high-income area, and people may pay a little more for convenience," he said.

Dan Weber, Dallas' director of aviation and manager of the city-owned Love Field, said he wishes McKinney well.

"If they are able to develop air service, that's a good thing," he said. But "it's going to be a tough nut to crack. Airlines don't have a lot of excess capacity to experiment with."

Corporate crowd

McKinney officials have invested millions of local tax dollars in the airport that has in turn attracted taxpaying, job-producing businesses and corporate jet fleets, most notably those of Texas Instruments and EDS.

Aircraft noise has drawn complaints and lawsuits from airport neighbors, primarily in the town of Fairview, who have opposed airport expansion.

Supporters say airline service not only would enlarge the city's place in the nation's air transportation system, but spur further economic development near the southeast McKinney airport. And last year, city officials lobbied successfully before repeal of the Wright amendment to remove proposed barriers to commercial flights at the airport.

With a 7,001-foot-long runway, Collin County Regional can handle Boeing 737s and other planes flown by the target airlines. The city hopes to have a wider 7,000-foot runway by 2012, leaving the existing landing strip for a taxiway.

The airport would need a terminal building and more parking for commercial service.

Who should pay for those additions? The city? Private developers? A public-private partnership? Who should benefit and control? And how much should the city pay in incentives, such as reduced or deferred landing fees, to lure an airline?

"All that has to be negotiated," said Mr. Whitfield, who previously said the consultants' initial report didn't accurately express the airport's potential.

The City Council received the study in private, saying it was an economic development matter. Its release was delayed for more than two weeks while council members reviewed the numbers and continued negotiations with possible airport-area investors.

"You've got all sorts of options," said the mayor, declining to identify the investors.

"I would hope in two, at most three months, we would have this all behind us."

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