At 5:17 on a damp, chilly Sunday morning, Buddy Gerald acquired something that made not only him happy, but also brought smiles to city and economic development officials: his boarding pass.
Delta Connection Flight 4711 to Atlanta was the first flight out of Hickory Regional Airport in more than three years. Scheduled to take off at 6:30, the Blowing Rock resident was using the flight in the first leg of a trip to his second home in the Bahamas. The early hour didn't bother him. At least he didn't have to drive to Charlotte.
"We're thrilled" about the return of commercial air service to Hickory, said his wife, Linda, who'd accompanied her husband to the airport to see him off. "It's going to be so much easier. Driving from Blowing Rock to Charlotte is just too much."
"It was a good couple of hours (to Charlotte)," Gerald added. "To here, it's 45 minutes."
He's the kind of leisure traveler Delta and local officials hope will use the new service regularly, along with businesspeople flying out to other cities for work or flying in to scout the Catawba Valley as a potential business site.
Hickory Regional ceased commercial flights in April 2002, when US Airways left as part of its post-Sept. 11 cutbacks. But city, business and economic development officials pushed hard for new commercial service, and Delta announced late last year that it would run three flights per day to and from Atlanta.
Atlantic Southeast Airlines is running the flights for Delta on 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets. Two more flights departed Sunday from Hickory at 11:25 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.; flights from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport landed in Hickory at 10:55 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9:47 p.m. Expedia recently listed some roundtrip flights from Hickory to Atlanta at $228.89.
Several local leaders took the first flight out Sunday; Mayor Rudy Wright boarded after a ribbon-cutting ceremony, saying he was using the opportunity to take his wife shopping.
Another was ASA Vice President Sam Watts, who said the resumption of air service ties Hickory, even with its single-gate airport, to the web of international travel and all its benefits.
"This will provide you with the ability to get on a plane in your hometown, fly to Atlanta and from there go literally anywhere in the world," Watts said. "Certainly anywhere in the United States."
Economic development leaders say they haven't quantified how much commercial flights will help the Catawba Valley's economy, which has slumped like the rest of the state's for the past five years.
But there's little doubt air service is a powerful economic development tool that will make the area more attractive to companies looking to relocate or expand, said Danny Hearn, president of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce who was also on the inaugural flight.
The first beneficiaries, though, will be companies whose employees will save time and therefore money "by not being on the road so much," Hearn said. "That's probably the biggest thing we need to concentrate on until we get some numbers."
Don and Diane Lowman can vouch for that. They run a Hickory job-finding agency and were among the initial group of about 25 that took Flight 4711. Commercial flights are so important to the local economy, and therefore their business, that they decided to take the first flight on their way to Tampa for vacation.
"We just hope everybody supports it, because this'll have a big economic impact in the community," Don Lowman said. He added that he fields calls all the time from out-of-town companies asking about the Hickory area, and one of the questions that always gets asked is: Does Hickory have commercial air service?
"It's absolutely vital to this community," he said. "And if it helps bring new businesses to town, it'll help us."