Lexington, Ky. Gets More Direct Flights

Central Kentuckians planning a summer vacation on the beach will have more options soon.

Delta Air Lines yesterday announced new non-stop flights from Blue Grass Airport to Florida leisure destinations Tampa and Fort Lauderdale beginning June 1. Lexington also will get a second daily flight to Orlando.

The three new flights, which will be on 50-seat regional jets operated by Com-air and Chautauqua, expand direct serv-ice at Blue Grass to the highest level in the airport's 59-year history, executive director Mike Gobb said.

In the past five years, the airport has more than doubled its direct destinations, from seven to 15. Tickets for the new flights go on sale Sunday.

"This is a big, big announcement," airport spokes-man Tom Tyra said. "Cities our size just don't get non-stops to Fort Lauderdale and Tampa. ... This is one of those things that will make people kind of raise their eyebrows. It is not a common thing."

Lexington is the beneficiary of Delta's strategy to maximize its presence in Florida with more point-to-point flights.

The new flights also represent a safe bet for an airline that has lost $7 billion since 2000, said Tom Parsons, a travel expert in Arlington, Texas, who publishes Bestfares.com.

The world's second-largest airline has said it narrowly avoided bankruptcy last year because of wage concessions from employee unions and other turnaround measures.

Increasing its flights out of Blue Grass allows Delta to avoid competition from discount carriers, such as Southwest, and to charge higher prices, Parsons said. Point-to-point flights also have lower costs because they are shorter.

"If you see the airlines do anything, it is all geared around profit," Parsons said. "Delta has been so conservative lately that they don't foresee this as a gamble."

Yesterday, the Atlanta-based airline also announced new flights to Florida from Louis-ville; Asheville, N.C.; and Birmingham, Ala.

Lexington flights to Orlando, which began in December, have averaged 90 percent full, officials said. That success is part of what triggered the serv-ice expansion, said Sharon Jones, Comair marketing manager.

Delta also hopes to capitalize on cruises departing from the Sunshine State. Fort Lauderdale and Tampa also will serve as connecting points to the Caribbean and Bahamas.

"There is no doubt in my mind we will sell these seats," Jones said. "You will see some aggressive marketing. I see no problem, other than getting a seat."

The fares, she said, will be competitive with those out of Louisville, which yesterday morning were as low as $140 and $153 on Expedia.com for two-week advance tickets to Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.

According to the most recent data from the federal Department of Transportation, 93 passengers a day flew to and from Orlando and Lexington in the third quarter of 2004. The totals for Tampa and the Fort Lauderdale-Miami-West Palm Beach airports were 72 and 124, respectively.

To get to those destinations, fliers out of Lexington had to transfer at other airports.

The new leisure flights represent something of a departure for Blue Grass, which has largely focused on attracting business travelers with new or increased service to hubs at Dallas-Fort Worth, New York and Chicago.

But Tyra noted that Tampa and Orlando are popular convention cities, meaning that those flights will attract some business travelers.

Gobb said the airport is still seeking service to Las Vegas, but probably through a charter airline making only three or four flights a week. No other leisure markets are on the radar, he said.

Officials have said that adding connecting points to the West Coast through Minneapolis and Denver are higher priorities.

U.S. Rep Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, praised the airport's success in attracting new flights. Despite losing service to Chicago-Midway, Pittsburgh and Dallas -- which it regained through another carrier -- the airport has announced, on average, a new destination every six months since 2000.

"This is quite an achievement at a time when airlines across the country are having significant problems," said Chandler, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

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