Low-Fare Lines Boosting Richmond, Va., Airport, Officials Say

Oct. 26--Despite years of recruiting Southwest Airlines, airport commissioner Beverley "Booty" Armstrong said yesterday that Richmond is "better off getting AirTran and JetBlue than if we had gotten Southwest."

Armstrong's comment came during a Capital Region Airport Commission discussion of JetBlue Airways Corp.'s decision to start nonstop flights to New York and Boston this spring.

Since low-fare AirTran Airways' started here last Armstrong summer, Richmond International Airport has scored a rare twofer that could offer a better mix of destinations, officials said.

For years, local airport and business advocates courted Southwest, the dominant discount airline. But after a serious flirtation with Richmond in 2001, the Dallas-based carrier chose only one Virginia airport -- Norfolk.

Things seem to be working out for Richmond, though, as evidenced by the airport's 16.6 percent total passenger growth through September compared with the first nine months of 2004.

Low-fare JetBlue and AirTran have targeted Richmond's top two destinations -- New York and Atlanta, putting them "much more in tune" with the local market than Southwest, Armstrong said.

JetBlue also has an advantage at its New York hub at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Southwest flies to Islip, N.Y., farther east on Long Island.

That makes Southwest "far less accessible to mid-Mathiasentown" Manhattan, he said.

Jon Mathiasen, the airport's president and chief executive officer, left the door open for the airline, saying, "But we'd certainly welcome Southwest."

While celebrating recent successes, the airport commission and staff said they haven't given up on Southwest.

Armstrong said Richmond should be able to capitalize on its central location and lure travelers who would rather not drive to Northern Virginia or Norfolk.

"At the end of the day, we have far superior ground transportation," he said.

Another kind of ground transportation was on the mind of airport commissioner Robert F. Norfleet Jr.

JetBlue's location at JFK -- 16.3 miles from Central Park in Manhattan -- could be "a bit of a negative for Richmond travelers" accustomed to landing at LaGuardia Airport, only 7.5 miles from Central Park.

"We need to establish that Kennedy is not the end of the world," Norfleet said.

Mathiasen said he'd work on promoting JFK as a new destination. He said it's only a 20-to-25-minute drive from JFK to upper Manhattan around the United Nations, "which is not too much different than LaGuardia."

Mathiasen also noted that many travelers could use JFK to catch international flights -- making ground transportation a moot point.

The airport chief reported that September's passenger mark set a record, with a 28.2 percent increase to 241,914 passengers over the same month last year.

Delta, US Airways, American and United held the top four positions for local passenger totals, with AirTran at the No. 5 position with 9.16 percent of passenger traffic.

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