Los Alamos Banks On Convenience To Lure More Passengers To Airport

June 03--The thought of flying from Los Alamos to Albuquerque at first seems absurd. The two cities are not even 100 miles apart.

And all a motorist has to do is travel on N.M. 502, then hit U.S. 84/285 and finally onto Interstate 25. The travel time is usually two hours to the Albuquerque International Sunport.

But add in the cost of parking and gas -- as well as the time billed by contractors and subcontractor who might be paid hourly -- and commuter air travel begins to make sense between the two locations.

Taking a plane cuts that travel time to about 50 minutes, said Los Alamos Public Works head Philo Shelton, and that takes into account the TSA requires travelers to check in 30 minutes prior to the trip. The flight from Los Alamos to touchdown in Albuquerque only takes 20 minutes.

Convenience comes at a price, and a one-way flight purchased through the city of Los Alamos' website costs $49. Flights can also be arranged via travel websites such as Travelocity or Orbitz, but additional fees may apply.

About 10 years ago, the Los Alamos National Lab operated a similar airline service, but it fell out of use. Shelton said the city saw revenue potential in the flights, so it got a grant to get the flights off the ground. And Los Alamos spokeswoman Julie Habiger said the city sees connectivity as a potential boon for economic development.

The Los Alamos County Airport offers three flights to Albuquerque and three flights into Los Alamos, Monday through Friday. On Saturday, there are two flights to and from Albuquerque, and there is one outgoing flight and two incoming flights on Sundays. The airline also offers charted flights and cargo shipping services as well.

That saved time, plus the convenience, is what the city of Los Alamos is trying to sell, said Shelton. Parking, he said, is free at Los Alamos airport, and he said public transit also serves the facility.

Many LANL employees use the service, Shelton said, and LANL Director Charlie McMillian publicly endorsed the service. Other folks, Shelton said, use the service to fly out from Albuquerque, and some older citizens use the service to travel to doctor appointments in the Duke City.

According to Shelton, the Los Alamos to Albuquerque flights saw about 6,000 customers from April 2013 to April 2014, and averaged roughly 500 customers per month. That's more impressive given that the prop plane seats only nine passengers per flight. That passenger number is important, Shelton said, because it allows the airport to skirt the requirement for a TSA agent and similar security measures that come with planes carrying 10 or more passengers.

So passengers don't have to check luggage or go through security in Los Alamos, said Peter Soderquist, airport manager, but they do have to do so when they arrive at the Albuquerque airport if they plan to connect with an outgoing flight. Passengers who are flying into Los Alamos do not have to go through the TSA at the Albuquerque Sunport.

New Mexico Airlines is the airport's only commercial line and it only flies to and from Albuquerque. Shelton said the airport sometimes sees emergency medical services helicopters and the National Forest Service sometimes uses Los Alamos as a fueling point when fighting fires in the Northern New Mexico region. Otherwise, private aviators generate the rest of airport's traffic.

The main goal, Shelton said, is to increase ridership. The planes, he said, are generally 50 percent full, and the city wants to increase to about 70 percent or higher. If it reaches that goal, he said, the plan is to add another flight, but that's down the road.

Greg Kahlstorf, owner of New Mexico Airlines, said his company isn't interested in "cheer leading" from the town, but hopes that city officials are going to "get people in seats." So far, Los Alamos has been a good market, he said, and he can see it continuing to grow in the future. New Mexico Airlines also has flights to and from Carlsbad. He said so far Los Alamos has invested their "own dime" via an local and online advertising campaign.

"Los Alamos is doing everything it can to bring traffic into the community," Kahlstorf said. "That's the work of scientists."

Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or cquintana@sfnewmexican.com.

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