Three months into the return of commercial air service at Hickory Regional Airport, most flights are taking off half full, or less.
At the close of business Thursday, only 3,972 paying customers had flown on the Delta Connection flights out of Hickory. The flights take off three times daily for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
That's less than half capacity. With 120 seats available per day, the total number of seats was 10,680.
So airport, city and economic development officials, while not panicking, are trying to figure out why the numbers are low and how they can boost them. "We're on an information quest right now," said Airport Director Tim Deike.
They're actively surveying businesspeople, making presentations at lunches and talking to civic groups, which generally consist of businesspeople. The presentations cover the specific advantages the service has for people in and near Hickory -- a quicker drive, free parking, competitive rates -- but the message boils down to: Don't you forget about us.
Habit rules air travel patterns as much as it does anything, experts say. After a hiatus of more than three years -- US Airways left Hickory in April 2002 as part of post-9-11 cutbacks -- it's just taking time for people to get used to the idea of flying out of or into Hickory, said Mike Boyd, a Colorado aviation and airport consultant.
"Hickory is not some isolated burg in the middle of nowhere. People are used to driving to Charlotte, and it's hard to get people to change their habits," Boyd said. "It's very hard to make money with a regional carrier when Charlotte is an hour away."
Even more disappointing, Deike said, is that about 90 percent of the passengers are leisure, not business travelers -- and officials had hoped that business fliers would provide the backbone of the service.
"Our expectation was that we'd have a pretty close split of 60-40, 50-50 business and leisure," Deike said. "Charlotte and Greensboro are still pretty much where everybody's going for business travel."
The airline uses 40-seat airplanes on their flights to and from Hickory. On isolated occasions, he said, a flight will carry 30 or more people, "but usually, it's in the 20s."
Yet officials aren't ready to give up. The number of passengers is gradually increasing, Deike said, and officials are betting people will grow more accustomed to the Hickory flights as the months pass.
"Those numbers are above what US Air was averaging their last year here, so I think that's very good," said Tom Carr, the city's assistant city manager over development. "That's not to say the numbers can't be better ... But it's still very, very early in this process. It's way too early to be panicking about the boardings."
Flights between Hickory and Atlanta are marginally more expensive than from Charlotte. As of Friday, a flight leaving Hickory on Friday and returning Monday cost $463.91 when booked via the airline's Web site; a flight from Charlotte cost $456.90. Hickory officials say the shorter drive, free parking and shorter waits at the gate more than make up for the $7 difference.
Delta representatives said the airline is still committed to the service, although they want the numbers to rise, too.
"Certainly, we would love to see additional customers take advantage of that service," said Gina Laughlin, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the Delta subsidiary that runs the flights. "New markets take some time to develop, and we are certainly are committed to Hickory customers. But we would like to see additional customers flying on our airplanes to ensure the service's success over the long run."
That's one of the things officials likely will discuss Aug. 15, when N.C. Commerce Secretary Jim Fain is expected to meet with local business leaders, including Delta representatives, said Millie Barbee, president and chief executive officer of the Hickory Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Those assembled probably will discuss new strategies for attracting fliers, Barbee said. "I think it's going to grow and do extremely well, but it takes a while for people to change their minds and their travel patterns," she said.
"With our size and the fact that we're a hub for the whole western Piedmont, I think we still have great opportunity."