Eastern N.C. Airports Compete for Passenger Business

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.

He said passenger traffic is up at Wilmington about 21 percent for the first nine months of 2005 over the same time last year. Wilmington has direct flights to New York, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, as well at Atlanta and Charlotte.

Rosborough said the new international service could impact the New Hanover County economy. He said lots of Bermuda residents travel to the U.S. for goods and services.

"They can get it a lot cheaper in the states," he said. "We think that's going to have a great impact."

Rosborough said the airport used to lose passengers to Raleigh and Myrtle Beach, S.C., a trend known in the industry as leakage. He hopes this new service will help continue to boost passenger numbers.

"This new service we have here would be offering something to all of our customers even the smaller airports," he said.

For five long years the Kinston Regional Jetport, part of the N.C. Global TransPark was without a commercial air carrier. That changed in April when Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a regional partner with Delta, began offering non-stop service to Atlanta.

Kinston hasn't looked back, mounting an aggressive effort to lure passengers from other airports.

Drivers heading toward Albert J. Ellis Airport on U.S. 258 will pass a billboard encouraging them to use Kinston.

"We have (billboards) throughout eastern North Carolina," said Jennifer Brezina, director of marketing and communications for the Global TransPark Authority. "By the end of the holiday, we expect to have about 20 billboards total."

You can hear radio ads touting the airport. One features people who just came back from Atlanta for the day with a plethora of shopping bags touting the airport's convenience. Another features a woman reading many of the cities passengers can connect to through Atlanta if they fly out of Kinston.

The airport says about 80 percent of the flights' seats have been filled since the service began.

Some other perks are available for passengers using the Jetport. Library books are available to borrow. Passengers can win prizes like a set of golf balls.

"We have a T.G.I.F. program in place where we give passengers free giveaways on Fridays," Brezina said.

But perhaps one of the most appealing perks is free parking. Vickers admits the free parking is a mild irritant for him and other airport directors because the Jetport is state subsidized and funded. Ellis charges $6 per day.

"By not charging the parking, they're forgoing the opportunity for that revenue," he said.

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