Business Up at Asheville, N.C. Airport

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- Joe and Kathleen Kasben shop around when they are making air travel plans, comparing fares through Asheville Regional Airport and those at other nearby airports before booking their tickets.

For a good while, Joe Kasben said, that meant the Asheville couple would end up driving to Greer, S.C., to take a flight because using Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport was significantly cheaper than Asheville Regional.

But for a recent trip to Connecticut, the Kasbens flew via Asheville.

''We got a good deal, as low a fare as we could have through Greenville,'' Joe Kasben said. In fact, ''the last two times we flew through Asheville. (The fare) was about the same.''

Other area residents are making similar decisions: After several years of declining usage, passenger traffic through Asheville Regional jumped 18.5 percent in 2004 and was up 40.4 percent for the first two months of 2005.

Airport officials expected recent efforts to attract more air service to pay off, but, ''I don't think any of us expected us to be where we are today,'' said Susan Phillips, director of marketing and public relations at Asheville Regional.

''The airlines realized there's a market here'' and the public has responded, said Dr. Albert Anderson, head of the airport's governing board. ''Who would have thought a year or so ago that Asheville to Minneapolis would have been so successful or Asheville to Houston? That flight's full almost daily.''

The upswing started in the last quarter of 2003. Anderson and Phillips describe a kind of circle in which air service to additional cities has resulted in more competition, options and lower fares, leading to more passengers - which in turn encourage airlines to add flights.

That's occurred against a background in which improvement in the overall economy and changes in the industry have also boosted local traffic, experts say.

Asheville Regional officials have been trying to attract more air service for years with mixed success. Passenger numbers were finally starting to turn around not long after Continental Airlines started flying between Asheville and Newark, N.J., in July 2001. Then, the September 2001 terrorist attacks and their aftermath brought a sharp decline in usage in Asheville and elsewhere.

The federal government in 2002 approved a $500,000 grant obtained in part through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, a Brevard Republican, that allowed the airport to increase marketing efforts and make more lucrative offers to airlines considering offering service out of Asheville.

The value of the packages - which typically include fee waivers and marketing assistance but no direct payments to airlines - rose from a maximum of $50,000 to $150,000, Phillips said, and the airport has made them more flexible to tailor them to individual airlines' needs.

In 2003, the airport completed some terminal improvements designed to make flying through Asheville more pleasant.

Asheville Regional has also automated the process of checking to see how competitive fares are and changed the tone of its conversations with airlines when fares get out of line, Phillips said. A few years ago, the airport's information was not as complete and fare discussions ''created a lot of tension,'' she said.

The airport has also started posting fare comparisons with nearby airports on its Web page, www.flyavl.com.

''It helps change that perception that Asheville is higher,'' Phillips said.

When people are making flight decisions, ''price is always the driver,'' said David Young, co-owner of Fugazy Travel and a former member of the airport board.

''As long as you can get (a reasonable) price and a decent schedule, people are going to go out of Asheville.''

Several passengers said the convenience and small size of Asheville Regional are big advantages.

''For the size airport they've got, I think it's got tremendous service (and) all the amenities you need,'' said Rochester, N.Y., resident Karen Green, who frequently flies into Asheville to visit relatives.

Many other airports are seeing passenger growth as well, although most not nearly as rapid as Asheville's. Air travel grew 5.5 percent statewide from 2003 to 2004 and 3.4 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

''The fear of flying has dropped precipitously ... after 9/11. People are more comfortable,'' said John Kasarda, a professor of management at UNC Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler School of Business who specializes in the airline industry. ''Most important is the economy has come back.''

''There's just simply more people traveling,'' Phillips said. ''We're getting surveys from people who are saying this is our first time traveling since 9/11.''

A nationwide move away from turboprop aircraft to regional jets among airlines may have also helped Asheville, where practically all service is on ''commuter'' affiliates of mainline carriers.

Turbulence can create a bumpier ride on a turboprop and ''a lot of folks just feel more secure flying in a jet,'' Anderson said. ''They don't like to see that propeller out the window.''

Phillips and Anderson concede that there are still some travelers who drive to other airports for cheaper fares or more reliable travel, figuring every connecting flight they take is another opportunity for a delay.

The competitiveness of Asheville fares still depends on where and when a traveler is going and varies from week to week.

The average roundtrip fare, with a 30-day advance purchase, for the 50 top destinations from Asheville Regional was $310 last week. From Greenville-Spartanburg, the average for the same cities was $274. Charlotte's average was $258 and Atlanta's $235.

But, Young said, ''by and large, the fares are competitive. ... If there are any savings at all (from using another airport) it's not worth the drive.''

Loading