Eastern N.C. Airports Compete for Passenger Business

The airports are competing for passengers by constantly trying to recruit new airlines, add new destinations and offering perks in the airport to make the wait more enjoyable.

Oct. 30--First, there's the drive -- every bit of 125 miles just to get there.

Then there's parking. It's a long way off, and folks need a shuttle just to get back to the terminal. Once there, most face a long line to get a boarding pass and an even longer line to go through security.

This is what Onslow County residents have to endure to fly out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. For many, it's not worth the trouble. They would rather fly closer to home.

Airports throughout eastern North Carolina are competing for these business travelers and vacationers. It's a competitive market, exemplified by a new advertising campaign by the Kinston Regional Jetport. The "Fly Kinston" billboards seen along Jacksonville thoroughfares, are targeting customers in Onslow who might otherwise choose the short drive to Albert J. Ellis Airport near Richlands, where they can fly direct to Charlotte and Philadelphia on U.S. Airways.

Customers who prefer Delta Airlines can take the one-hour drive up U.S. 258 to the Kinston Regional Jetport and fly to Atlanta. Among the perks Kinston advertises in its campaign is free parking.

Travelers who want more nonstop destinations can take the 50-mile drive down to Wilmington.

The airports are competing for passengers by constantly trying to recruit new airlines, add new destinations and offering perks in the airport to make the wait more enjoyable.

The closest of the three airports to Jacksonville sits just off N.C. 111 near Richlands. Albert J. Ellis Airport would like to keep residents from driving to Kinston or Wilmington if they want to go to Atlanta by getting direct service of its own.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced recently the airport received a $500,000 grant through the Small Community Air Service Development Program. Airport Director Jerry Vickers said Ellis officials have been in negotiations with an airline about service to Atlanta, but talks are in limbo.

"We're in a bit of a standstill right now given the nature of what's going on in the airline industry with the bad economics," he said.

Vickers also would like to see the airport possibly begin service to Washington-Dulles airport.

In the meantime, US Airways will offer more service during the busy Christmas season. Starting Dec. 15 until around New Year's, the airline will offer an extra direct flight to Philadelphia each day. Right now, the only Philadelphia service from Ellis is once every Tuesday.

Another holiday perk at Ellis is a once-a-day flight on a 90-seat jet. Right now, the biggest plane operating out of Jacksonville seats 70 passengers.

"It's sort of a campaign to make sure there are plenty of seats for the military and their families to get home," Vickers said.

The airport also is trying to make the terminal more passenger friendly. Plans are in the works for wireless Internet access possibly in another month or two. A Moka Joe's Express coffee cart also will soon be set up at the airport, and passengers can sit and watch cable news and weather.

These are projects Vickers hopes will continue the upward trend of passenger traffic. Earlier this month, the number of passengers using Ellis surpassed the 151,825 last year.

Many of those passengers are Marines flying home from Camp Lejeune. Wilmington International Airport director Jon Rosborough acknowledges the number of troops using Wilmington's airport is declining.

"I am assuming with Jerry's numbers and the type of personnel that he has up there, with Lejeune there, he's captured more of that flying directly out of Jacksonville," he said.

Rosborough may have found a way to bring some of the Marines back as well as other eastern North Carolinians.

Crossing the pond will soon get easier. An airline known as Fly First Class has announced it will begin service from Wilmington to Bermuda and London starting early next year. Fares will start at $699.

Rosborough was instrumental in convincing the airline to come to Wilmington.

"We have a very aggressive air service development program," he said.

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