If the city hopes to lure another commercial air carrier to Hickory Regional Airport, it'll have to climb a steep hill.
That's the opinion of airline industry experts -- and the city's own economic development officials -- after the announcement this week that Delta will pull its commercial service out of Hickory on Dec. 1.
"I think that with what's going on with the airline industry ... I don't care if it's Charlotte or Greensboro or anywhere trying to get service, it'll be challenging, with the price of fuel and everything," said Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp.
"If I were an air carrier considering new lines, I'd have to see a pretty good analysis showing there'd be considerable business from Hickory to wherever their hub is going to be."
Local officials had hoped that the flights, run three times a day between Hickory and Atlanta, would help draw businesspeople to Hickory and make it easier for local business travelers to catch flights around the country.
But soon after the flights began May 1, fuel prices soared, and airlines are loath to raise fares accordingly because of competition from low-cost airlines such as AirTran and Independence Air, two carriers that have begun service at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in the last year.
Delta was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September. As in any reorganization, low-performing services are the first to go -- and Hickory's passenger numbers averaged about 40 percent capacity for the first few months, instead of the 60 or 70 percent Delta had hoped for.
"It was just a market that wasn't performing up to our expectations," Delta spokeswoman Benet Wilson said Wednesday. "We're constantly looking at our entire route network, before and after Chapter 11, and we have to put our resources where they're best utilized."
Delta will contact fliers who have already bought tickets for flights to or from Hickory on Dec. 1 or later and offer a refund or rerouted flight, Wilson said.
City officials said Tuesday that they planned to pursue another carrier. But it's hard to imagine the city winning another one, given the state of the airline industry, said Brian Streeval, an airline analyst for The Boyd Group, an aviation and airline consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo.
The Hickory flights failed even with a marketing campaign of more than $250,000, most from a federal grant; one of the industry's biggest carriers; and service to and from the world's largest airport, Streeval said -- all of which would make an airline think twice.
Besides, he said, Hickory will never be able to overcome its location: Charlotte/Douglas is only an hour away. Location would probably temper the benefits of commercial service to the overall local economy, too, he said: "Hickory just kind of blends into the Charlotte market.
"If Atlanta can't work, other routes are unlikely to be feasible. I just do not see their ability to attract another carrier," Streeval said. "If they get more government subsidies, perhaps, but as a market on its own, I don't see it."
Hickory airport Director Tim Deike said he understands the odds, but he still believes the city can find a way to make commercial air service work. Passenger numbers were beginning to rise before Delta decided to pull the plug, he said.
"I think our message is right on for the number of people we have traveling," Deike said. "I think our assets and attributes are the same, so our approach ought to be the same.
"I'm a firm believer that if you can do it once, you can do it a second time."
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