Miami Airport Lures ATA Airlines with Incentive

ATA Airlines will resume service from Miami International Airport to Chicago Midway in October, making it the first low-cost carrier to choose Miami over Fort Lauderdale and garner free landing fees.

It may also herald an entree to Miami for Southwest Airlines' connecting passengers, because the two carriers often transfer passengers to each other's flights on a single ticket.

ATA will begin with two daily flights to Miami on Oct. 29, adding a third on Dec. 13, confirmed airline spokesman Stan Hula.

''It's part of a return to Florida,'' Hula said. ''We've run the economics and we are familiar with the marketplace.''

ATA, the first discount carrier to qualify for MIA's new incentive program, will get a waiver on all landing fees for one year. JetBlue Airways, which serves Fort Lauderdale, is also expected soon to announce new service to Miami from various cities, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and possibly others, beginning next year, sources said.

Low-cost carriers, like Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines, until now have favored Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport over MIA. The Fort Lauderdale airport, which has had an incentive program since 2000, has staked its niche for discount carriers, the fastest growing segment in the airline industry, ever since Southwest chose Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood for its South Florida base in 1996. Some low-cost carriers, like AirTran Airways, have opted to fly out of both Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

In 2003, only 840,000 passengers, or 2.8 percent of Miami's traffic was carried on low-cost carriers. That compares to 6.5 million, or 36.6 percent of Fort Lauderdale's passengers, according to a study conducted by Coral Gables-based KKC Aviation Consulting in 2004.

For years, MIA has tried to attract more discount carriers, and the incentive program, approved last month, is geared to lure them, as well as international airlines.

ATA, which sent a memo to employees Wednesday informing them of the new service, plans to announce it Sunday, when it will begin selling tickets.

Fares for the flights, which will operate on Boeing 737s, will be published then, Hula said.

MIA administrators haven't yet been notified of ATA's plans, however, so gate and counter space hasn't yet been leased, he said.

''We are delighted to have them,'' said Miguel Southwell, MIA's assistant director for business development. ''They provide good service.''

ATA, which is reorganizing under bankruptcy protection, will also begin flying from Sarasota to Chicago in October. But it has no plans to fly from Fort Lauderdale, Hula said.

''We think it is best. The numbers we've run suggest Miami is the better destination,'' he said. ''Miami doesn't have a lot of low-fare service. It's a little crowded at Fort Lauderdale with the all JetBlues of the world and what-not, so we think Miami will be a better place for us.''

ATA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2004 and pulled out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale earlier this year.

The Indianapolis-based airline never ceased operations, but sold leasing rights to some of its gates at Chicago Midway to Southwest. It also entered into a code-share arrangement with the airline, in which the carriers sells seats on each other's flights as if they were their own.

A code-share pact with Southwest on Miami flights is likely after Dec. 13, though it's too early to know, Hula said. That would open connections for Miami passengers from Chicago on Southwest flights, at Southwest fares, and open Miami to other Southwest passengers.

''Southwest Airline's arrival into a market, even if it is Southwest's arrival via codeshare, via ATA, has historically driven fares in the new market very low and increased usage of those airports,'' said Stuart Klaskin, partner in KKC Aviation Consulting. ''To get Southwest into Miami, even by proxy, is a huge victory for Miami International.''