What Happens Next at Hickory Regional Airport?

Jan. 25--Even without commercial air service, the Hickory Regional Airport remains a key part of the Unifour's transportation network and economy. Now, the city of Hickory is examining what the airport's future holds and plans on establishing an airport task force to look at it further.

Here are some commonly asked questions about the airport and commercial air service there:

Q. Why didn't Delta succeed in Hickory? A combination of factors contributed, including easy drives to airports in Charlotte and Greensboro and that flights connected through busy Atlanta. The overall state of the airline industry didn't help, either: Delta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September and had little room or time to turn things around here.

John Cline, owner of Hickory Travel & Tours, said he thought prices were high and Delta's marketing efforts lacking. "We book a couple million dollars of airfare a year, and we never saw a Delta rep in our office," he said. "I thought (US Airways) was more cooperative with trying to work with the local population and get involved in the community."

US Airways operated commercial service in Hickory until April 2002.

The biggest problem, though, was a simple lack of business, which airline spokesmen said made the flights "economically impossible" to continue.

In only one month -- October, after Delta began a widely promoted fare sale -- were more than 50 percent of seats full. Would numbers have continued to improve? It's hard to say, because that month Delta announced it was pulling out. In January, about 18 percent of seats have been occupied.

The airport also fell short at drawing business travelers and people from places such as Boone and Blowing Rock.

Q. How will this affect the region? Delta's departure deprives the Unifour of an attractive amenity, said Catawba County Economic Development Corp. President Scott Millar and Hickory Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Millie Barbee. But, they noted, it's hardly a death blow -- particularly because the region is still close to Charlotte's airport.

"I don't think we're going to get kicked off of every list (of potential locations) because we don't have air service," Millar said. "But I do think it's one of those things that can be a selling point to prospective industries."

Q. Will Hickory be able to attract another airline? The city spent about $138,000 on its Delta efforts, and Mayor Rudy Wright says he believes it was worth it. "I'm still optimistic there's potential for us to make this thing work with some other carrier," he said, though he acknowledged it isn't the ideal time to search for an airline.

Others aren't so sure. "We believe Hickory faces a significant uphill battle," said Mike Mooney, an aviation consultant with the Boyd Group of Colorado. "Carriers are going to be hesitant because Delta failed. However, never say never in the airline business. There may come a time in the next three to five years when Hickory can support some form of scheduled air service."

Q. Where does this leave the airport? Hickory has learned from its experience with Delta and can use that to provide "some attractive information" to other carriers in the future, Assistant City Manager Tom Carr said.

The airport itself is in good physical shape and retains a strong corporate and general aviation presence.

The key now, Carr and airport Manager Tim Deike said, is to keep the airport growing: If yearly passenger numbers drop below 10,000 a year, the airport loses access to $1 million in federal entitlement money for infrastructure improvements.

Delta's service, which drew a total of about 11,700 passengers between May 2005 and Monday, helped it exceed that mark this year, and the federal government has already committed to paying to operate the control tower for the next two years.

But the numbers are much lower than the peak of about 37,000 passengers in the late 1990s, when US Airways flew turboprop planes from Hickory.

"The whole way the airline industry operates has changed," Deike said. "We need to take a look at what role the Hickory Regional Airport can play to benefit the region's economy in the best way."