Direct flights from the Lehigh Valley to St. Petersburg, Fla., will return this fall.
Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based airline that flies from Lehigh Valley International Airport to Orlando, Fla., will begin nonstop flights to St. Petersburg on Nov. 16.
The airline will offer four flights a week to the beachfront city in western Florida. Airport officials expect one-way fares will range from $59 to about $240.
To start, Allegiant will fly to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Allegiant planning director Scott Tyra said it's possible the airline will fly more frequently during the peak winter season.
The airline will announce details of the service at a news conference today at LVIA.
Allegiant is the fifth low-fare airline to begin LVIA service to Florida in the past four years. The privately held, nine-year-old airline is the only one that remains. Rising fuel costs, mismanagement and small profit margins ushered the others out of business. LVIA officials believe Allegiant will be the airline to break the pattern.
Other airlines that serve LVIA also fly to St. Petersburg, but none flies nonstop from here. LVIA lost nonstop flights to the city when Hooters Air ceased operating in April. Nonstop service is prized by families, older travelers and others who do not want to change planes.
While Orlando is the No. 1 destination for Pennsylvania air travelers, the Tampa/St. Petersburg area is also popular. Last year, the region was the eighth-most frequent destination from Pennsylvania airports, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
"What you get with western Florida is beaches," Tyra said. "It is a little quieter. It is more of a family tourist destination."
George Doughty, executive director of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, said St. Petersburg proved more popular than Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when now-defunct Southeast Airlines flew to both cities in 2003 and 2004. There is a core group of people in the Lehigh Valley that owns vacation homes or has family in the St. Petersburg area, he said.
The airlines that have flown to Florida from LVIA in recent years have been unable to weather downturns because they have such small profit margins.
For example, Southeast, which was based at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, faltered when fuel prices surged. It abruptly shut its doors in November 2004, stranding some Valley travelers in Florida. TransMeridian Airlines, an Atlanta carrier that took over Southeast's flights to Orlando, stopped flying when fuel prices soared after Hurricane Katrina.
The departures left some passengers with unusable tickets and the airport with millions of dollars in unpaid bills.
Airport officials have high hopes for Allegiant, which will receive more than $100,000 in marketing and promotions from LVIA for the St. Petersburg flights.
Allegiant began flying to Orlando from here in December and has stuck to a plan of expanding slowly and cautiously. The airline favors smaller, secondary airports. For example, it flies to an airport in Sanford, near Orlando, rather than Orlando International Airport.
The airline also reduces flights during slower seasons. For example, this month Allegiant reduced the number of flights to Orlando to two a week because September is traditionally slow for leisure travel.
"We want our planes to be full," Tyra said. "We look for average fares that keep the planes 80 percent full. Each market needs to be profitable."
The airline flew 8,966 passengers to and from LVIA in July. That was enough to make it the fourth-busiest carrier at the airport, topping Northwest and Continental.
LVIA, which is served by seven airlines, has about 40 nonstop daily departures to 12 cities. Last year, 832,000 passengers flew to and from the airport in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
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