Florida Route Puts Worcester, Mass., Airport Back in Action

Dec. 28--In its first week of passenger air service in almost three years, the Worcester Regional Airport is posting brisk business, with most of the new Allegiant Air daily round trips to the Sanford-Orlando airport in Florida more than 80 percent full, officials said yesterday.

On last Thursday's inaugural flight to Florida 122 of the jet's 130 seats were filled. Through next Tuesday, 12 of the airline's first 15 flights carried or are booked to carry at least 104 passengers, including sold-out southbound flights the day after Christmas and tomorrow, according to Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which manages the airport for the city.

Despite millions of dollars in Massport subsidies since the 1990s, the Worcester airport -- a 20-minute drive down twisting city streets from major highways -- has struggled to keep regular service.

Allegiant, based in Las Vegas, is the first airline serving Worcester since US Airways Express abandoned the city in February 2003.

It may be a while before Allegiant gets company or expands its schedule. Allegiant spokeswoman Tyri Squyres said the carrier is "very pleased by the response" to its Sanford service but doesn't envision increasing service soon. "We'll always be evaluating opportunities for new routes, but right now there's nothing on the horizon that's immediate," Squyres said.

Julie Jacobson, assistant Worcester city manager, cautioned that "a lot of pieces would have to fall into place" to attract a second or third carrier. Although the city has received $442,000 in federal aid to promote air service, Jacobson said, "We don't want to get an airline in here just for the sake of getting an airline in here. You've got to have a solid product."

Jacobson acknowledged that Allegiant's early numbers are helped by heavy travel demand during the Christmas-Hanukkah-New Year's week. But during February and March, Worcester is Allegiant's top seller of 14 cities for travel to Orlando, she said.

A November report by Maryland aviation consultants Infrastructure Management Group Inc. said that "existing carriers are unlikely to relocate service" to Worcester, based on poor past experiences for US Airways, American Airlines, and others. Airport officials should focus instead on "new entrant, start-up, and/or charter carriers," such as Allegiant.

"Direct point-to-point service to top origin and destination markets" instead of feeding into hubs, the report said, offers "the greatest long-term probability for a successful commercial service airport."

IMG identified Orlando as a top candidate, along with other vacation destinations in Florida; Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; and possibly Denver.

Worcester is surrounded by airports with frequent service: Logan International Airport in Boston, T.F. Green State Airport outside Providence, Bradley International in Windsor Locks, Conn., and Manchester Airport in New Hampshire.

But 620,000 people live at least 20 minutes closer by car to the Worcester airport than any of the four others, the report found, offering a key market.

The consultants said Worcester officials will have to use "compelling marketing" to attract business, which they said could include renaming the airfield Worcester-Boston Regional Airport or Central Massachusetts Airport to broaden its appeal.

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