Small Airports in North Carolina Survive Industry's Financial Tailspin

Dec. 17--There are still six airline flights left in Greenville. Asheville has gained service from two new airlines. Only Hickory is losing airline service entirely.

Despite the industry's unprecedented financial tailspin, North Carolina's smaller airports have survived with airline service mostly intact -- for now.

But that's little comfort at airports where anything from highway improvements to bankruptcy courts can affect flight schedules.

"We're scared," said James Turcotte, manager of Pitt-Greenville Airport, which had nine daily departures to Charlotte in 2001, but has dropped to six.

Smaller airports were expected to bear the brunt of cutbacks after the 2001 terrorist attacks spawned record losses in the airline industry.

But the state's small airports -- those with less than 30 daily departures -- now have 83 total daily departures, a net loss of only six flights since mid-2001. Four of the state's eight small airports gained a few flights.

Still, industry turmoil is rippling through some airports, where passengers have fewer flights to choose from and find themselves squeezed into smaller planes. Flight schedules may reflect bankruptcy restructuring more than local demand. Consider:

--Kinston, which had been without airlines since 2000, regained service after city boosters raised $200,000 to market Delta Connection flights, which began in April. Eight months later, the airline abruptly canceled one of the airport's three daily flights -- even though passengers were filling seats.

The reason: Delta, in bankruptcy, decided to focus on international service and needed the plane elsewhere. "We've been very pleased with the performance of the Kinston market," airline spokeswoman Laura Cotton said. "It's not a reflection of the Kinston market; it's a reflection of the entire industry."

--Wilmington International lost all its first-class seating when US Airways, which was restructuring, grounded a fleet of Boeing 737s. The six 737s serving Wilmington were replaced with smaller planes that have coach seating, leaving airport director Jon Rosborough with no seating upgrades for business travelers who make up 73 percent of the airport's passengers. "It worries you," Rosborough said. "It's out of our control."

Indeed, airport directors have to worry about more than an airline's financial health. Highway improvements, and even a competitor's parking rates, can siphon off passengers.

Passenger traffic at the Greenville airport fell 15 percent when the Knightdale bypass opened this summer, making the drive to Raleigh-Durham International Airport -- which offers more than 200 daily departures -- faster for some residents who formerly flew out of Greenville.

The airport also has been hurt by parking rates. Kinston's airport is about 30 miles from Greenville. Kinston offers free parking; Greenville doesn't. Turcotte worries that may lure more customers to Kinston and away from his airport. "The big thing that irks us is GTP is a state facility," Turcotte said, referring to the Global TransPark industrial complex, where Kinston airport is located.

Hickory Regional Airport officials couldn't compete with highway improvements and Delta's bankruptcy restructuring. The airport, which had been without airline service since 2002, spent $250,000 in local and federal funds to attract Delta Connection service, and even waived rent and landing fees.

"All they had to do was hire personnel and they were ready to go," said airport manager Tim Deike. Service started in May with three flights, and Delta said it would stay a year, Deike said.

But one of the flights was halted this month and the other two will end in January.

Only about a third of the seats were being filled, Deike said, partly because, with the four-laning of U.S. 321, the trip to larger Charlotte Douglas International Airport was only a 50-minute drive away.

Delta's bankruptcy also contributed to the decision to yank service before a customer base could be established, he said.

"Delta said our lack of passenger traffic and questionable financing through bankruptcy gave an unsure footing and they couldn't afford to stay," Deike said.

"We're a city of 40,000, and $250,000 is not small beans," Deike said. "It hurt."