Study Fuels Hope for Airline Service at McKinney

Consultants say growth boosts prospects, but airlines will need incentives to serve area north of Dallas.

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.

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