Orlando Sanford Airport Charts New Route

Jun. 12--Once a hub for European charter flights, Orlando Sanford International Airport now counts far less exotic locales such as Des Moines, Iowa, and Toledo, Ohio, among its growth markets.

The number of domestic passengers surged nearly 24 percent in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2005, while international passengers dropped 15 percent during that period. Passengers overall have increased 3 percent.

Airport officials say fewer charter flights and competition from other destinations for UK tourists account for the slump in international charters.

At the same time, though, the airport has ramped up its commercial service to a pace that could siphon some passengers away from cross-town rival Orlando International Airport.

Once a bit player in the world of commercial aviation, the airport isn't "looked upon as a peon any longer," said Orlando Sanford International Executive Director Larry Dale. "They know we've opened the door and slammed it behind us."

In the past year Allegiant Air began routes to 16 U.S. destinations and Icelandair pulled out of Orlando International Airport to move to Sanford. Earlier this month, Scottish carrier flyglobespan became Sanford's second regularly scheduled international carrier with service to Glasgow.

Allegiant, a small Las Vegas-based carrier, has thrust Sanford's domestic passenger count so high in its first year that domestic traffic is now poised to overtake the traditionally stronger international numbers.

"I expect it will happen next year," Dale said.

For the first four months of the year Sanford recorded 377,830 passengers, 213,918 of them domestic. During the same period last year the airport had 366,698 passengers, including 172,909 domestic.

Little airline that could

Allegiant began flying in Sanford with plans to station three to four planes there and carry 100,000 passengers its first year. Today it has seven planes in Sanford and to date has carried 325,000 passengers, according to the company.

The tiny airline, which last month said it plans to go public in an initial offering worth up to $100 million, contemplated locating at Orlando International but said it landed in Sanford because it's more convenient for its passengers.

"We felt that for our customers coming from smaller markets, they're coming from smaller airports and it kind of made sense for them to have a like product on the other end," said Tyri Squryes, Allegiant spokeswoman.

Four of the carrier's executive officers, including chief executive Maurice J. Gallagher Jr., are founders or were managers of the former ValuJet Inc., now known as AirTran Holdings Inc., or West Air Holdings Inc.

Allegiant's strategy is to keep costs low with single-class service that connects small cities to leisure destinations Las Vegas and Orlando.

Part of its low-cost plan is an on-board a la carte menu that sells everything from pretzels to pillows.

"We keep our fares very low, and we give the customer their own choice," Squryes said.

She said the growth isn't likely to slow down anytime soon. The carrier, which now has just under 100 employees based in Orlando, is looking at adding additional routes or increasing flights to its current destinations.

What competition?

Allegiant's plans may give Orlando International pause as it continuously markets itself to attract new airlines and new routes -- especially in the international arena. If so, officials there are unwilling to publicly acknowledge concerns about competition.

"Air travel that brings new and increased visitors to the region is welcomed because it has the potential to benefit the entire community," said Carolyn Fennell, spokeswoman for Orlando International, in a written statement responding to inquiries about market gains by Sanford.

Orlando International is the busiest airport in the state in terms of passengers, counting a record 34 million last year compared with Sanford's 1.6 million.

By all accounts, though, many people will be giving Sanford a try as word spreads about its low fares, increased nonstop routes and fewer big-city hassles.

Figures from Allegiant show the airport is drawing passengers from all over Central Florida, with nearly 20 percent from Volusia County and 16 percent from Orange County.

Christy Neely, for example, braced for a typical day at the airport -- traffic troubles, jammed parking lots and long lines -- as she prepared to fly one recent afternoon from Sanford to Sioux Falls, S.D.

But when she arrived at the airport, the wait at the ticket counter was just a few minutes and the security line was empty.

"I'm three hours early. I've never flown out of here before," said Neely, 27, of Gainesville as she waited for her flight. "Now I know."

Jerome and Debra Hogan were traveling to Sioux Falls with their son James, 11, on a recent morning. The Longwood family decided Allegiant could fly them cheaper and closer to their final destination of Mount Rushmore -- minus the headaches of a big airport.

"This is very calm compared to OIA," Debra Hogan said as she waited at the ticket counter.

With such rapid growth, though, the airport must consider how to hold on to the small-town convenience that impresses customers such as the Hogans as it soars to a projected 8 million passengers by 2020.

Planning for growth

Dale said the airport is planning for its growth, in part, by building an 830-space parking garage at a cost of $12 million set to be complete in October. It also approved the development of a hotel on airport property.

In the fall the completion of the link between Lake Mary Boulevard and State Road 415 will open up more access to the airport.

More passengers also demand more amenities, and the airport is in the process of refurbishing one of its international lounges and has added another lounge called The Budweiser Room for Europeans who covet American beer.

It's also adding a Bijoux Terner shop, which sells purses, watches, belts, scarves and other accessories all for $10.

Orlando International has two of the shops in its terminal.

Dale said Sanford could even reap some of the benefits of the University of Central Florida Medical School planned for the Lake Nona development near Orlando International.

"We're talking to some medical-associated people now," Dale said. "As Orlando grows, we grow."

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.