Weak Demand Has Hickory Airport Flights in Bumpy Air

Hickory risks losing its only commercial air service if ridership doesn't improve soon, airline officials are warning.

But local officials are determined to boost passenger numbers so Delta Air Lines, which provides the Hickory Regional Airport with three flights a day to Atlanta, doesn't pull the plug.

Jet service debuted May 1 amid great enthusiasm from local officials, but passenger numbers have fallen short of expectations.

The flights have been about 40 percent full, said Sam Watts, vice president for planning and logistics at Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the Delta connector that serves Hickory. ASA's systemwide average is about 70 percent, he said.

"Delta is certainly in no position, or is ASA, to devote resources to a situation that is not going to produce a profitable result," Watts said. "There is an urgency here."

Delta has been struggling to avoid bankruptcy and is in the midst of a massive, cost-cutting transformation plan. On Monday, it agreed to sell Atlantic Southeast, which was a fully owned subsidiary, to SkyWest for $425 million.

Delta will likely re-evaluate the service in a couple of months, Watts said, and would like to see ridership improve to at least 50 percent or 60 percent, with the hope of eventually equaling the systemwide average.

It's uncommon for airlines to try to re-establish air service in small communities, but Delta "made the conscious decision" to tap markets in the Carolinas, said Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant.

"Hickory was an experiment," he said. "It's a tremendous risk for Delta Air Lines." The problem, he said, is that competition from nearby Charlotte, with its "bazillion flights a day," may be too much to withstand.

And if Hickory fails this time, he said, it may only prove that the city can't support commercial air service -- no matter what local officials or studies say. "If it doesn't work for Hickory now, it's over, it's permanent," he said.

Hickory officials said they hoped to lure air travelers from a broad area stretching into the N.C. mountains. And the city has spent more than $250,000 marketing the airport, including billboards around the Charlotte region encouraging travelers to "Fly Hickory instead," Mayor Rudy Wright said.

A recent survey the city commissioned found four out of five frequent fliers in the region were aware of the Delta service, and 88 percent of those who used it were satisfied, Wright said.

The city is considering setting up meetings between Delta and local businesspeople, including CEOs and people who authorize travel for companies with large budgets, Wright said.

Jeff Hale is one of those who hope Delta Air Lines doesn't pull out of Hickory.

"It's made it much simpler for people to come in here and do business with us," said Hale, who works for Encompass Medical in Valdese, near Hickory.

He and many clients have used the Delta service since it began, he said, calling the prices "very competitive," especially when convenience is factored in.

To catch a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Charlotte, he said, he has to get up at 3:30 a.m. In Hickory, he can leave his house at 5:50 a.m., park for free at the airport and avoid long lines. In about a half-hour's flight time, he's in Atlanta.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press