Now it's Jacksonville's turn.
Kinston town leaders thought they had locked in airline service by offering Delta tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising. A year later, the carrier is scheduling its final departure.
Now Jacksonville is dangling incentives worth about $700,000 to entice two Delta flights.
"I'm optimistic," said Jerry Vickers, director of Jacksonville's Albert J. Ellis Airport. "The community of Jacksonville is starved for service to Atlanta.
"I think it will pay for itself," he said of the two daily round trips, to begin Dec. 11.
Vickers said Delta was attracted by soaring numbers of boardings by another airline at Jacksonville. But the use of incentives highlights expensive measures that small airports are using to connect with a financially troubled airline industry.
Incentives didn't work in Kinston, which is losing service in January, or Hickory, which lost service earlier this year.
Jacksonville is offering Delta revenue guarantees worth $650,000, plus $50,000 for marketing. Airport officials also are waiving landing fees and rent worth $93,000. In return, Delta must operate the flights for one year, Vickers said.
Vickers said the guarantees were needed because Delta officials said it's risky to start new service at small airports. "What we call incentives, they call risk mitigation," he said.
Delta was attracted by boardings at the Jacksonville airport, which have been boosted by military traffic from nearby Camp LeJeune in coastal Onslow County, Vickers said. Last year, the Jacksonville airport had one of its busiest years, with 92,000 boardings.
"The numbers had gotten where it could support two airlines, and Delta saw that," Vickers said. US Airways operates eight daily round trips between Jacksonville and Charlotte.
Officials at Kinston's Regional Jetport thought they had plenty of passengers, too. But this month, Delta notified the airport that it was ending two daily round trips to Atlanta on Jan. 6, leaving the Lenoir County town without daily air service. Allegiant Air offers round trips twice a week from Kinston to Orlando, Fla.
Delta received a $220,000 federal grant for marketing the Kinston service, and local business leaders raised at least $65,000 for additional advertising that touted the airport's jet service and free parking. Delta's planes had been, on average, 76.1 percent full since service began April 1, 2005, said airport spokeswoman Jennifer Russo.
But the flights weren't profitable, said Delta spokesman Anthony Black. When the carrier raised fares, passengers began driving to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
"The community was definitely supportive, but at the end of the day, it was simply a business decision," Black said.
Last year, Hickory Regional Airport chipped in $250,000 in local and federal funding to get three Delta flights. Because the flights didn't last the required one year, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which operated the service for Delta, must refund $246,000 to the airport.
"I don't think they are playing anyone against each other" to get incentives, said Ted Alman, special projects manager for the state Division of Aviation. "They're [just] running a very tight margin, where if they don't make a certain amount of money immediately, they are gone."
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