Florida to LVIA Flight Dilemma: Airlines Can Fill Planes, But Struggle to Make Profit

Airlines that offered nonstop service to Florida cities have come and gone at LVIA. One departed so abruptly it stranded Lehigh Valley residents in Florida and left LVIA with $1 million in unpaid bills.

Mar. 26 -- Nonstop flights from here to Florida are among the most popular at Lehigh Valley International Airport.

The flights to Orlando, for example, are full not only during the winter months but year-round, as families flock to Disney's amusement parks.

Yet the popularity of the flights has done nothing to guarantee their staying power. Airlines that offered nonstop service to Florida cities have come and gone at LVIA. One departed so abruptly it stranded Lehigh Valley residents in Florida and left LVIA with $1 million in unpaid bills.

Hooters Air is the most recent carrier to announce it will stop flying from LVIA. Its last flight, on April 19, will take off just shy of a year after the company arrived at LVIA.

Allegiant Air, a discount carrier based in Las Vegas, is now the airport's next hope for restoring stable service to Florida. To endure, Allegiant will have to overcome obstacles that stopped the other airlines. It remains to be seen if the nine-year-old leisure carrier can pull that off.

Here are challenges the other airlines faced:

Low fares, full planes

Hooters, Southeast Airlines and TransMeridian Airlines consistently operated Florida flights that were at least 80 percent full. As soon as LVIA officials announced new service, passengers scurried to book tickets.

As small, relatively new airlines, they were unknown entities when they arrived at LVIA. To entice passengers, they offered rock-bottom prices. That stocked the planes with passengers, but the fares often did little more than meet costs.

The airlines then found it difficult to charge higher fares. Experts say passengers flying to leisure destinations are more sensitive to price hikes. If the price to fly to Florida is more than they want to spend, many passengers will instead drive to the Jersey Shore or skip traveling.

Hooters has charged between $79 and $199 one-way for its flights to Florida destinations, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Las Vegas. But the airline was not able to sell enough tickets in the $129-to-$149 range, which would have allowed it to turn a profit, said Judy Tull, director of marketing and sales for Hooters Air.

"Passengers don't like to pay those prices. Who wants to pay $149 if they can get a $79 fare somewhere else?" Tull said in a telephone interview Wednesday."If people are not willing to pay the price that it takes to fly your plane, you are unable to make up your cost."

Many passengers interviewed Thursday at LVIA said they don't want to pay much more than $200 round-trip to Florida, and if they can find flights for less, they jump at them.

"Anything more than [$200], we will drive or take a boat," said John Baldwin, 45, of Coopersburg, who was flying Thursday to Orlando with his family.

Many destinations seasonal

Airport officials say Orlando is a year-round destination. But other cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Myrtle Beach attract passengers only at certain times of the year. And airline experts say a few months of the year -- September and January, in particular -- are dead for leisure destinations.

The traditional September lull, coupled with the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, delivered a mortal blow to TransMeridian last year. Airport officials say the Atlanta airline, which began flying from LVIA about a year ago, was filling planes last summer with $100 one-way fares. Under those conditions, the airline was turning a profit. But when the hurricane disabled refineries in the Gulf Coast region, fuel prices soared and TransMeridian crumbled.

Allegiant officials say the airline has an advantage because Las Vegas is a hot market during the fall when passengers don't want to fly to Florida. The airline flies to Vegas from other airports; it does not have immediate plans to fly there from here.

Tough racket

The small airlines that LVIA has attracted for Florida flights serve the leisure market, where profit margins are typically low. Business travel, by contrast, often occurs at the last minute, which means airlines can charge a premium.

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