Hickory Airport Promotes Flights to Atlanta

Faced with airline officials demanding improved passenger numbers in the next two months, local officials are bolstering their efforts to persuade travelers to try Delta airline's Hickory flights.

The service was launched in May with three flights daily to Atlanta, and most have been only about 40 percent full. That's far short of the 70 percent average on Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the Delta Connection carrier serving Hickory.

The airline recently told city officials that if business doesn't improve, Delta could pull out.

At a special City Council meeting Monday, officials brainstormed ways to battle misconceptions and attract more passengers, particularly from the region's business community.

Airline representatives will be in town this week to make sales visits and calls, and the city is looking at other ways to reach those who determine how -- and where -- companies from Lincoln County to Boone spend their travel dollars.

Duncan Cavanaugh, the airport's air service development director, said the city's marketing effort will emphasize price and convenience.

Although Charlotte and Greensboro offer more direct flights, which makes travel time often seem quicker, he said, most flights out of Hickory do not take longer when time spent driving and waiting at the airport is factored in.

In many instances, the same goes for price, Cavanaugh said. When City Manager Mick Berry and Mayor Rudy Wright examined flights from Hickory, Greensboro and Charlotte, the difference between flying from Hickory and elsewhere was greater than $100 only on flights to New York-LaGuardia and Chicago-O'Hare.

"It's not going to make sense (to fly from Hickory) every time," Berry said. "The message that has to get out is, you just can't write Hickory off and say their fares are too high, because it's not true. It's simply not true."

The effort to lure more customers will include:

A targeted frequent flier program offering discounts on hotels, rental cars, restaurants and other services.

The city is working with chambers of commerce across the region to persuade businesses to offer the discounts, Berry said.

But Councilman Brad Lail wondered whether discounts were really enough to convince fliers to switch allegiances.

"If I'm a business traveler, I'm certainly not going to base the decision (to fly) on 10 percent off at Cafe 242," he said.

He suggested features such as preferred parking and boarding would hold greater appeal.

"We had talked about the mayor carrying their bags," Berry joked. "On a limited basis, I'll do it," Wright said, laughing.

A "Hickory Hometown Hotline," so passengers can get local help with travel questions.

Having visible community members send e-mails to people they know promoting the Hickory flights.

Because the campaign uses e-mail, the cost is minimal and will be paid from the airport's budget, Berry said. The city is also considering direct mail.

The city will know if the marketing measures are succeeding if advance bookings go up, Cavanaugh said.

According to a study the city commissioned, 90 percent of passengers who have flown out of Hickory have been pleased, but 57 percent of fliers have simply not considered the service.

The success of the commercial jet service is important not just for business and community pride, Berry said, but because it helps lessen the city's share of the airport's operating costs. The more flights it has, the more the federal government chips in, he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press