Money Draws Flights to Daytona

Jan. 15--DAYTONA BEACH -- After Sept. 11, 2001, the Daytona Beach International Airport was at its lowest point since the early 1980s.

There were only six domestic flights a day, shops inside the terminal were forced to close, and there were concerns about the future of the county-owned airport.

Now, almost five years later, passenger traffic is picking up as the airport tries to shed its reputation as a spoke in the hub and spoke system of air travel. Next month, airport officials hope to add more passengers by introducing nonstop flights to some new destinations.

With only one domestic terminal, one international terminal and an annual budget of about $50 million, airport officials acknowledge that they cannot match Orlando International Airport for low fares or scope of service. But the Daytona Beach airport, which has had commercial flights since 1930, does offer some features that officials hope will draw passengers away from the bigger airports.

The day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Continental announced it was pulling out of Daytona after 13 years. Continental had one flight a day to their hub in Newark, N.J., and a seasonal, weekend flight to Cleveland. The airline left Daytona because of cutbacks across the industry, airport officials said.

That left the airport with six flights a day, three 50-seat regional jets and three 142-seat jets. All of the flights were to Delta's hub in Atlanta.

"There was a lot of speculation about what was going to happen," said Steve Cooke, the airport's director of business development. "People were asking, 'is the airport going to go out of business?' "

As people started returning to flight nationwide, Daytona officials knew they needed to start serving centers like the one in Newark, N.J. again, but they had a harder time than major airports building their service back up. With only flights to hubs, passengers who live in the Daytona Beach area are more likely to go to larger facilities for nonstop flights.

"Daytona Beach, unlike Orlando, is not strategic," Cooke said. "We have to basically earn our wings every day financially or they are not going to be here. Orlando is different. If I am major carrier or a low-fare guy and I am having service to Florida, I have to go to Orlando. I can't say I am a major carrier if I don't serve Orlando. If doesn't matter if I make money or not. We don't have that luxury."

In 2002, Continental executives said that if they resumed service from Daytona Beach to Newark, N.J., they would lose $743,333 a year.

With the help of U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, the airport and Continental signed a one-year deal in December 2002 that called for the airline to resume service and use a $908,333 federal grant to cover their losses and pay for marketing.

When the agreement expired, Continental decided that its service in Daytona was viable and extended their agreement. Today, Continental has two nonstop flights a day to Newark.

"Without a doubt, our subsidizing of them is what brought them back," Cooke said.

The subsidy program, coupled with improved passenger counts at the airport, has led Continental to expand its service further and other airlines to enter the market.

After the airport posted its lowest passenger count in more than 15 years in 2002, the number of passengers increased by 16 percent in 2003 and by 12 percent in 2004, reversing a seven-year decline. In 2004, the airport had 631,038 passengers, the most since 1997.

There are now about eight departures a day and eight arrivals a day, Cooke said.

"I think we are in the beginning of the upswing again in the cycle. It's very cyclical, very volatile," said Seth Young, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who focuses on airport operations and management. "I think things are changing in Daytona Beach's favor."

In February, Continental will offer seasonal nonstop flights on weekends to Cleveland.

Also next month, United Airlines will begin two daily flights from Daytona Beach to Washington Dulles International Airport. There will also be a third, Saturday flight to Dulles as well as a Saturday only flight to Chicago's O'Hare airport. The Chicago and Saturday flights are scheduled to end in April, coinciding with the end of the area's busy special events season.

To persuade United to come, the airport is providing the airline with incentives such as free rent, covering construction costs and providing marketing for the new service. Cooke said if the United service does well, he thinks the airline will add more flights.

"They're just dipping their big toe into the water right now," Cooke said.

Airport officials acknowledge that Delta's bankruptcy has hurt service at Daytona and could potentially cripple it. But Dennis McGee, the airport's director, said that Central Florida's rapid growth -- particularly in Volusia and Flagler counties -- will bring more customers to the Daytona airport.

"As the demand for air travel increases, we will become more attractive for people," McGee said. "As it becomes tougher and tougher to get through the larger airports, people will be willing to pay a slight premium to not wait in longer lines."

But McGee and other officials know people won't use the airport just because it's there. They need to offer things that the larger airports don't, such as mailing back confiscated items for free and free parking promotions.

On a recent afternoon, John Metzner sat checking his work e-mail inside the terminal at the Daytona airport. Metzner, the vice president for external relations at nearby Embry-Riddle, often takes business trips to places such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

"I could fly out of Orlando," said Metzner of Ormond Beach. "But then after being on a plane for 36 hours, I'd have to drive from Orlando to Ormond. And I'm not that friendly on the road when I do that."

On this particular day, Metzner was waiting to board a flight to Washington, D.C., and he was using the airport's free high-speed Internet.

"It takes 10 minutes to go through ticketing and security and then I spend the last hour before my flight checking e-mail," said Metzner, who flew about 171,000 miles in the past year. "This is the only airport I've ever been in where the Internet is free."

The airport also offers a senior discount at its shops, free jump starts to passengers with dead batteries and a week of free parking for everyone who writes a complaint letter. Another popular feature is a rack of tourist brochures for about 20 destinations reached by flights from Daytona.

Similarly, the airport has to go out of its way to attract new airlines. At big airports, airlines like Southwest or JetBlue practically beg to offer flights, McGee said.

But Daytona airport officials know they must woo airlines like a potential mate. So the airport is sending pill bottles of jellybeans to all of the employees at JetBlue's headquarters in Forest Hills, N.Y., that read "Once every morning, once every night, with nonstop DAB-JFK service." They're also sending water bottles with other humorous messages to entice the airline to come to Daytona.

McGee said that JetBlue has expressed in interest in providing service from Daytona.

"If they continue to hear about Daytona internally and externally, it raises our chances," said McGee, the airport's director.

Young, the Embry-Riddle professor, said Daytona is not at the top of JetBlue's list for expansion, but he thinks the chances are "better than not" that they will eventually serve the airport.

Until that happens, expect Daytona officials to use whatever facts or food it takes to land the discount carrier.