AirTran Eyes Charleston, S.C. As New Destination

Discount air carrier AirTran Airways is conducting an online poll asking people which city they should fly to next, and Charleston is one of the 49 choices.

Discount air carrier AirTran Airways is conducting an online poll asking people which city they should fly to next, and Charleston is one of the 49 choices.

Rick Atkinson, director of Yeager Airport, said he is launching a campaign to encourage people to vote for Charleston.

"We've asked the Charleston Area Alliance to send it out to their members and for their members to send it to their employees," Atkinson said of the poll. "We've also sent it to the Kanawha County Courthouse and to our board members."

Atkinson said that if AirTran began serving Charleston, "I think we would see lower fares to many destinations and increased passenger numbers, and it would have the ability to save passengers tens of millions of dollars in airfare just like Independence Air did."

Independence Air brought discount fares to Yeager in July 2004, and other carriers matched the low prices. The maverick airline went out of business in January, however.

Atkinson figures Independence Air saved the region's travelers about $25 million during the 17 months it served Yeager.

Charleston airfares headed higher when Independence Air quit flying.

"I think it's a great opportunity," Atkinson said of the AirTran online poll. "Will it land AirTran here? I don't know. But it's worth a shot."

The poll is online at nextcity. The poll is titled, "Where would you like to go next?" and says, "AirTran Airways is currently planning the next addition to our route map and we want your input. Do you wish you could travel to your favorite destination, old hometown or top business market on one of AirTran Airways' new planes with XM Satellite Radio and Business Class on every flight? Now is your chance to tell us where. We'll announce our next destination soon."

In addition to Charleston, the poll lists Charleston, S.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Harrisburg, Pa., Lexington, Ky.; Roanoke, Va.; and cities as far away as Spokane, Wash., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, as possibilities for a new route.

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said the last time the airline conducted such a poll was in 2003.

Sarasota, Fla., was among the cities to get the most votes then, and it was AirTran's next new destination.

"Seattle was one of the top cities on the list and we've added it this year," Graham-Weaver said.

She said even if a city doesn't win in the poll, if it gets enough votes it could make it on a short-list for future flights.

The poll was posted Monday afternoon on AirTran's Web site, Graham-Weaver said. The company will leave the poll on its Web site for at least a week.

"We want to give people time to get the word out and to vote for their favorite city," Graham-Weaver said. "I know a lot of people are going to the Web site to vote but I don't have any results yet. Once the site disappears, you'll know we're finished and that we're about to announce the results."

Atkinson said the airport has been talking with AirTran since 1999 and is familiar with how the airline operates.

Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, AirTran had focused on going into smaller communities like Bloomington, Ill., Moline, Ill., Akron-Canton, Ohio, and Flint, Mich., Atkinson said.

After the terrorist attacks, AirTran changed its strategy and began adding larger communities where "they could get passengers and not be the focus of everyone's attention," Atkinson said.

"Maybe they are looking back at finding those mid-size cities they can be successful in and grow and what they've done at Flint and Akron Canton and Moline and Bloomington," Atkinson said. "This region responded very well to Independence Air's low-fare service and I think a lot of airlines looked at that response."

Atkinson said one point in Yeager's favor, from the perspective of a low-cost airline, is that "we're insulated to a great extent. Any major airport is at least three hours away (by car) and we can draw from most of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and southeast Ohio."

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