Local leaders are hoping to convince the airline that links Yeager Airport to Washington, D.C., that it can keep fares low and still make money.
It's a pressing issue since low-fare carrier Independence Air quit flying on Jan. 5.
Before Independence Air entered the Charleston market in July 2004, the walk-up round-trip fare from Yeager to Washington, D.C., was $850 to $900, said Yeager Director Rick Atkinson.
Independence Air offered one-way flights from Yeager to Washington Dulles for as little as $29. Independence Air's revolutionary low fares produced three major outcomes:
-Other airlines matched Independence Air's fares. Atkinson has estimated that Charleston travelers saved about $25 million.
-Air travel to and from Yeager skyrocketed.
-Flyi Inc., the corporate parent of Independence Air, went broke.
Colgan Air Inc. now links Charleston to Washington. Colgan flies 34-passenger aircraft with the US Airways Express brand to Reagan National and with the United Express brand to Dulles.
"They fly those routes at risk," Atkinson said. "They set the pricing for the Charleston-Washington market. Then US Airways and United set the pricing for connecting traffic and pay them a fee for that person on the connecting flight."
If a traveler flies from Charleston to Washington and does not connect to another city, Colgan keeps all of the revenue, less a fee for booking the flight and using the big airline's brand, Atkinson said.
Colgan has not changed the pricing it had in place in response to Independence Air, Atkinson said. The walk-up, round-trip fare to Washington, D.C., is now about $400, he said.
Atkinson said he and Brian Belcher, Yeager's marketing director, met with Colgan executives on Jan. 20.
"They know they made money when they had very high fares and flew very few people," Atkinson said. "The key is, with the increased number of people that will fly, where's that price point where they can fly more people at a lower fare but make a profit?"
"Obviously they're not going to charge $29 one way. Flyi went out of business doing that," he said. "The thing that is intriguing for them is, there was a pent-up demand for Washington, D.C., business. So how can they capture that business and make a profit? They want to meet with the people who use the service and hear what they can do to keep those people.
"We told them we would facilitate opportunities for them to talk to the large corporate travelers who use D.C. flights."
The Charleston Area Alliance e-mailed members Tuesday asking those with substantial travel to Washington to sign up to meet with Colgan executives on Monday or Tuesday.
Members are asked to e-mail Matt Ballard, the Alliance's executive vice president of business development, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ballard said Wednesday the Alliance has received a good response. Ballard plans to start calling companies today to set up times they can meet with Colgan executives.
"I hope their (Colgan's) reaction next week is, 'Wow. We're overwhelmed by the people who want to travel and we'll keep our fares as low as we can,'" he said.
Ballard said that after Atkinson and Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper spoke about air service at the Alliance's board meeting in November:
-He and Alliance President Bill Goode met with Atkinson to gain a better understanding of all of the issues.
-Alliance Chairman Jack Rossi appointed Mike Basile, Chris Jarrett and Allan Fowler to a Transportation Committee. Basile is managing member of the law firm Spilman Thomas & Battle. Jarrett retired Nov. 1 as president of West Virginia American Water Co. and is now a partner in Retrofit Construction LLC. Fowler heads The Dow Chemical Co.'s West Virginia operations.
-He and Tom Kittredge of Terradon Communications, who chairs the Alliance's CEO Roundtable, arranged a CEO Roundtable event on Jan. 19 at the airport "so a diverse spectrum of business leaders could understand the issues."
Air travelers could eventually see expanded service in Charleston as a result of future meetings Yeager executives have planned with officials from 12 airlines.
Colgan Air Inc. is intrigued by the fact Independence proved there was a pent-up demand for Washington, D.C., travel.
Atlanta-based Aviation Advantage is considering flying from Charleston to Myrtle Beach.
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.