AirTran Flies to Phoenix

Charleston air travelers lost out to Phoenix in an online bid to win new service from AirTran Airways, a carrier that local officials have been trying to land to bring down the cost of flying.

AirTran Holdings Inc., which owns the Florida-based airline, announced this week that it would start flying between its Atllnta hub and Phoenix on Feb. 15 for a promotional rate of $199 round-trip.

By March 7, three AirTran 737s will head from the Peach State to the desert runways of Arizona.

The news came as a blow to local businesses and leisure travelers who had hastily organized a get-out-the-vote campaign at the end of October. The online poll was organized by AirTran to help it decide where to expand next.

The last discount carrier to serve Charleston International Airport, FLYi Inc., filed for bankruptcy late last year and dissolved in January. In the months since, fares in Charleston have outpaced prices in all but a few U.S. cities, and local air traffic has fallen off.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of

Commerce tried to swing support for AirTran by urging members to participate in the Internet poll, according to Mary Graham, senior vice president of public policy at the organization.

"We'll keep focused on it," Graham said Wednesday. "We're hearing so loud and clear again from the business community that the issue needs to be addressed that I think we're open to anything that would help attract new air service."

In choosing Phoenix, AirTran picked a community with almost seven times the population of Charleston and a metropolitan area that is already served by several discount carriers, including Southwest and JetBlue.

The Phoenix terminals handled more passengers in three weeks this summer than Charleston International welcomed all last year. Plane tickets in and out of Phoenix in the first half of this year were about 8 percent cheaper than flights to and from Charleston, although they were about 5 percent higher than the average U.S. fare during that time, according to government statistics.

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said the online survey was the "overriding factor," though not the only factor in the carrier's decision to choose Phoenix.

"It gives us an intangible thing that we really don't get any other way, and that's what the community support would be," Graham-Weaver said.

AirTran is scheduled to begin service also to Newburgh, N.Y., and Daytona Beach, Fla., next year, plus one or two other cities yet to be named. Graham-Weaver said the carrier is still looking closely at Charleston, among other cities it does not serve.

One of the lackluster new destinations has been Richmond, Va., a market similar in size to Charleston that AirTran started serving in June 2005. The airline has since cut some of its nonstop Richmond flights.

"It didn't tick off quite as fast as we'd hoped," Graham-Weaver said. "It's going well, but it's still building."

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