Six months ago, Dave Young heard serious rumors about Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines planning to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Young, vice president of air service development at the Fort Wayne International Airport since Aug. 1, remembers when rumors became fact just as the business day closed Sept. 14.
?I couldn?t believe it. Delta was teetering. You knew that the press was scrutinizing their every operation, but I had no idea that Northwest would declare bankruptcy the same day,? Young remembered. ?I try to think of a word for it. It was unbelievable. It really was.?
As Young, 53, makes the transition to Fort Wayne, his wife and child remain in Denver where he most recently worked as a consultant for an aviation company. Here, it?s Young?s job to sell the city, the airport and the region to powerful airline executives, while showing local citizens the importance of lifting off from their hometown airport.
Those are responsibilities that became even more important after low-fare airline ATA backed out of Fort Wayne prior to Young?s arrival in March. Then Delta and Northwest?s announcements rocked an aviation industry still reeling from the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 attacks.
?From a financial standpoint, it is probably the worst it has ever been,? said Young, who has more than 25 years experience in the airlines industry. ?You start to worry about the security of your own operation.?
The Delta/Northwest bankruptcies are already trickling down to Fort Wayne travelers.
Northwest has quietly cut one of its six flights from Fort Wayne to Detroit. Delta announced it is slashing a quarter of its flights at its second-largest hub, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky. Fort Wayne will lose one of its six flights to there in December.
?I don?t think anybody would be shocked to hear that the airline industry is in complete turmoil and obviously it is not just a matter of trying to expand the air service but trying to retain the service you already have,? said Tory Richardson, airport director.
In a stinging announcement late last month, Delta cut a direct flight from Fort Wayne to Orlando that had been set to debut Monday. Orlando is routinely among the top 10 most popular destinations for Fort Wayne travelers. City airport officials had even prepared a marketing plan for the flight.
?It was very much a shock,? Young said
The number of passengers flying out of Fort Wayne was down 13 percent in August from the same time the year before.
Young said the loss of ATA is telling: the August 2005 figures are nearly identical to those of 2003, prior to the airline?s arrival.
It?s a tough time for all regional airports, said Matt Will, associate dean of the business school at the University of Indianapolis.
?Here is what is going to happen with a company going into bankruptcy: They are going to cut any flight that isn?t full,? Will said. ?Fort Wayne is going to be in the boat of not filling up a flight.?
While Fort Wayne leaders often tout benefits reaped from easy access to Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis, that selling point doesn?t always help the airport. Young estimates 50 percent of potential Fort Wayne airport customers fly from somewhere else ? often Indianapolis. He said the reason is simply cheaper fares.
But his job is educating Fort Wayne fliers about considering the entire cost and stress associated with driving to, parking and wading through security somewhere else. If locals want more and possibly cheaper flights, they must support the Fort Wayne airport.
?If they don?t use the airport, it hurts the incumbent airline, which negates any growth, which mitigates any possibility that a new carrier will start here, because they see passenger numbers declining,? Young said.
Young insists ATA marked a successful experiment, because it proved a low-cost carrier could perform well and stimulate the market. He hopes national airlines will listen.
Meanwhile, progress is apparent at the airport. A $3.1 million new parking lot to accommodate 600 more cars is under construction and could be open by month?s end.
Low-cost airline ATA will end service in Fort Wayne quietly, after all. A public sendoff slated for Monday has been canceled.
If its stable financial condition improves, the Indianapolis-based company might sell stock to the public within two years.