Tyler, Texas, Airport Recovers From Years-Long Slump

Consumer confidence over safety, competitive airline fares, greater public knowledge and a good economy helped Tyler Pounds Regional Airport recover last year from a boardings setback that dated to the 2001 terrorist attacks, airport and economic development authorities said.

The airport saw its commercial airline enplanement number rise to a record 86,183 last year, and Airport Manager Davis Dickson said he and others are waiting to see what American Airlines decides to do with its American Eagle commuter activity at Pounds.

American said last year it anticipated reducing the number of flights at the airport in March.

The airport hit a previous high in boardings in 1994, with 81,506. From 1995 to 2000, enplanements fluctuated between 72,626 and 77,795.

Continental Express canceled its Houston flights and 2002 saw enplanements total 55,578.

But records show the next two years saw steady improvement -- boardings climbed back to 70,549 in 2004 -- as people took to the air again and SkyWest Airlines began service at the Continental connection to Houston.

Last year, American Eagle logged 62,089 boardings. Colgan Air, which began service as the Continental Connection in May when SkyWest left the airport, saw 15,586 boardings. Colgan's number did not include SkyWest's activity through April.

And Express Jet, a jet service for Continental that began service in October, logged 1,629 boardings.

Dickson said several factors contributed to the 2005 boarding numbers.

"We've seen in a lot of airports have some gradual increases throughout the system, and I think people are building more confidence," he said.

The additional security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has caught on with the public and helped boost that confidence, he said.

"And, with the airlines here, I think Tyler has come in with more competitive fares for certain markets," Dickson said. "I've noticed we've seen some good rate comparisons versus even the main hub." He said a U.S. Department of Transportation marketing grant has been used to educate the public about conveniences of using the local airport.

"We've had a lot of response that people didn't realize some of the services that are available here," Dickson said.

Also, people can choose more flights, he said. American Eagle has seven departures a day, and Continental, using Colgan Air, has six departures per day.

Colgan originally offered four flights per day when it took over as the Continental connection from SkyWest.

"They've increased flights since late summer, then the Continental connection replaced a turboprop flight with a jet," he said, referring to Express Jet.

American Eagle had eight departures a day, until late last year when it removed its one jet service flight. The commuter now serves the airport with its turboprop fleet.

And these flights are often full, Dickson and Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Mullins said.

Mullins said the increased activity at Pounds was the result of everything Dickson mentioned plus a very strong economy.

"Keep in mind that 70 percent of all the seats that are filled -- are filled by business travelers," Mullins said. "So if the economy stays strong, there are greater numbers traveling for business, and better numbers for the airport. -- The airplanes have been full for several months." But Dickson and Mullins said they are concerned how the anticipated American Eagle flight reduction might affect the airport and business.

American Airlines has been warning of cuts since a May 2005 meeting of the Tyler Airport Advisory Board. An American official attending that meeting predicted that there would be a reduction if Tyler didn't help fight efforts to have the Wright Amendment repealed.

The board refused to cast an official position, saying collectively that a little competition was good for consumers.

In the 1960s, the Civil Aeronautics Board ordered Dallas and Fort Worth to jointly build a new airport, based on the idea that competing facilities would struggle for business. When Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport opened in 1974, the city of Dallas began taking steps to close Love Field to avoid taking away business from the new airport.

Southwest, which was based at the then-doomed Love Field, sued over what it described as a "forced" move to D-FW and prevailed. The Wright Amendment, passed in 1979, restricted the airline's service to limited points in Texas and neighboring states in an effort to protect D-FW.

Twenty-five years later, D-FW is no longer a struggling newcomer to the airline industry, and Southwest officials tell lawmakers there's more than enough ridership to support two airports.

Amid objections from American, Southwest was granted permission in December to expand flight operations into Missouri.

American responded by announcing plans that it would return to Love Field by March with 16 daily flights to St. Louis, San Antonio and Austin, using craft that serve outlying areas such as Tyler.

Only Tyler and College Station were slated for cuts in service, officials said.

Dickson said he hopes American Eagle will change its mind regarding the flight cuts.

"A big portion of this number (total 2005 enplanements) was provided by American, so they have a number of satisfied customers here," he said. "We'd hate to see that reduced anymore because many times the planes are going out full."

If American Eagle does cut flights, it could potentially reduce the overall number of boardings for 2006, he said. The airport may look for another carrier more aggressively if American Eagle cutbacks result in a shortage of seats for air-travelers.

Mullins said a cutback would make the situation difficult for business travelers. He said people who are frequent flyers and depend on those connections have written to American, the city and the chamber.

Mullins also lamented that the city has worked very hard to build up the airport, "but if American goes forward with their cuts, it changes everything." A cutback would affect the travel of corporate people and support entities, such as vendors and suppliers, for area businesses, Mullins said.

He said an official with a major manufacturer in Tyler has already raised questions about possible effects of American's anticipated cuts.

If representatives from a major company in Tyler has trouble traveling to Tyler, "that might affect some investment decisions they make in the future," Mullins said. And he asked, if travel to Tyler ceases to be convenient, "would they make that investment somewhere else?" Mullins said he expects the chamber's Aviation Committee to discuss the issue during an 11:45 a.m. meeting at the airport Monday.

He said the committee will discuss, "What can Tyler do to get them to change their mind? And if that's not possible, what other options do travelers have?"

Staff Writer Jacque Hilburn contributed to this report.

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