The passengers queued in the Worcester Regional Airport terminal didn't quite know what to make of the public-address announcement that 10,000th Allegiant Air passenger was in line, or of the news photographers who sidled nearby looking for signs of the lucky flier.
When Assistant City Manager Julie A. Jacobson intercepted Maria Dutra and friend Marlene J. O'Day at 9:35 yesterday morning as they left the counter, Ms. Jacobson congratulated Ms. Dutra on the distinction of being the 10,000th embarking passenger of the airline, which began service at the airport in December. She won a pair of round-trip tickets and other gifts from the company.
It also marked a milestone for the airport, restoring it to "primary airport" status and making it eligible for $1 million a year in grant funds from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Before Allegiant signed a five-year agreement in September, the airport had been without a commercial carrier since February 2003, when US Airways Express pulled out. Worcester and Allegiant officials have been happy about the Las Vegas-based airline's performance, as was airport Director Eric B. Waldron, who oversees the facility for the Massachusetts Port Authority.
Allegiant began passenger service to Florida's Orlando Sanford International Airport on Dec. 22, and has four nonstop flights a week.
"Allegiant has brought a tremendous amount to the airport," Mr. Waldron said. "Having 10,000 embarking passengers gives back primary airport status and entitlement funding from FAA."
That funding will be $1 million in fiscal 2008, he said. The FAA grant money can only be used for capital projects, not airport operations, he pointed out. Primary airport status is designated to those with a minimum of 10,000 embarking passengers a year. Nonprimary airports are usually general aviation airports, according to the FAA.
Massport has a five-year capital program for the airport, including repairs to some 4,000 feet of the 7,000-foot runway and installation of in-pavement centerline lights, Mr. Waldron said. The FAA has also mandated improvements to runway safety areas at each end of runways to prevent aircraft undershoots and overruns, as occurred in December when a Southwest Airlines jet ran off the end of a runway at Chicago's Midway Airport and into a roadway, colliding with a car and killing a 6-year-old boy.
There will be security enhancements to terminal windows and some maintenance to the 13-year-old building, he said.
Massport's contract to operate the airport expires in June 2007, Ms. Jacobson said. Formal discussions on renewing that agreement will begin after a master plan for the 1,300-acre airport is complete in the fall. A master plan meeting was held Wednesday night, and the third and final meeting is scheduled for the fall, she said.
Meanwhile, she said the city is happy with Allegiant's service, and is marketing the airport with the aim of attracting more customers and carriers.
"Allegiant has been happy so far with the numbers," Ms. Jacobson said. "Their load factors are trending positively. They're doing well on seats that they're selling. They're trying to encourage people to understand that they fly to Orlando-Sanford, which is close to Orlando, the Florida Space Coast region, as they're calling it now, as well as the Daytona area.
"It's a great opportunity for families with children to travel to Florida and the tourist attractions. We have an ongoing marketing agreement with Allegiant. We're promoting Worcester Regional Airport as a low-cost, accessible alternative to larger airports. It's easy to get to, and parking costs much less. The ticket costs are competitive," said Ms. Jacobson.
Over the last several months, the city has been marketing to commercial carriers and promoting general aviation capacity, she said.
Ms. Jacobson said that Mr. Waldron attended a "jump start" conference in Texas last week to meet representatives from airlines and identify those that might be suitable for Worcester Regional Airport.
"We want the right fit," she said. "We don't want to go after any airline. We want to make sure the airline has the capacity to be financially sustainable, and that their target demographic population matches that of our catchment area."
Allegiant Air spokeswoman Tyri Squyres said ticket bookings to and from Worcester are growing, with 18 percent of the sales originating in Florida.
"That's higher than we anticipated," she said. "We do no advertising in Florida. It's entirely word-of-mouth. Families are finding out it's an easy way to come home."
She said there are no immediate plans to change the company's schedule at the airport with more flights or destinations.
"Currently, we're looking at Orlando, and hope to grow that a little more before we add more destinations and flights. We would hope to grow our presence, with the convenience that airport has. It's a real value. Time is money, and the convenience of a quick security check-in is what people want. They want the convenience of a smaller airport," she said.
The airline uses McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series jets with 130 seats, she said. Ticket prices for a one-way flight range between $79, during low ridership days, to $179 at holidays, she said.
Contact business reporter Martin Luttrell by e-mail
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