One Step, Then Another

Sept. 19, 2007
Burlington International’s air service program paying off; next up is GA, cargo.

BURLINGTON, VT — In late August, Burlington International Airport’s director of aviation Brian Searles announced that JetBlue Airways is adding non-stop service to Orlando, beginning January 10. The move is a major feather in the cap of airport officials here. It’s one of the routes on which they have been focusing their air service development efforts, not an easy task in a region served by Montreal and potentially nearby Plattsburgh International Airport, a recently converted military base situated just across Lake Champlain. But it’s not all about air service, which is why another focus at Burlington is associated aviation growth. It’s currently in the process of recapturing previously unusable airport property, prepping for future corporate hangar and cargo growth.

JetBlue bills itself as the “the only low-fare, low-cost airline to serve the Green Mountain State.” It currently serves Burlington with four nonstops daily to its hub, JFK International.

Searles says it hasn’t been determined if the Orlando route will be year-round service — “it will continue as long as it’s successful,” he comments.

Burlington is the largest city in Vermont, with a population of some 40,000. [The catchment area, however, is much larger, officials point out.] It is an artsy, college town community sandwiched between the Adirondack and Green Mountains, and is a tourist attraction with popular Lake Champlain, ski resorts, and fall foliage as some of the attractions.

Robert McEwing, the airport’s director of planning and development, relates that Burlington International is within one hour of 1.8 million people and within 1.5 hours of an additional three million — all potential customers. “That’s what I call the unknown market — the uncaptured market,” he says.
According to Searles, Burlington International was originally leased by the City of Burlington from the University of Vermont, beginning in the 1920s; the city later bought it. However, the airport sits wholly within the city of South Burlington. The airport is governed by a five-member board of commissioners, appointed by the Burlington city council. One commissioner is from South Burlington; the remaining four are from Burlington.

Burlington International is located 40 minutes south of the U.S.-Canadian border, and some 30 percent of its enplanements are from Canada, according to McEwing. He says he doesn’t necessarily see Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International and Plattsburgh International as competition.

“Plattsburgh doesn’t have [passenger] service — they might eventually, but they don’t right now.”

Regarding Trudeau, he says, “We send a lot of people up there and people from there come down here. I don’t like to use the word competition. I like to [say] sharing the market.”

Eye on commercial
Burlington is served by six airlines: U.S. Airways, JetBlue, Continental, Northwest, Delta, and United. The airport is on pace to see more than 700,000 enplanements in 2007. Year-to-date, McEwing says passenger numbers are up some 2.5 percent over the same period last year. “We’ve had some pretty dramatic years in passenger growth leading up to this year and now we’ve kind of settled back a little bit,” he says. He calls existing air service at Burlington “reasonably good.”

Looking at the top origination and destination (O&D) markets and after surveying travelers, Searles identifies Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Chicago, and Denver as leading targets for new service.

The airport does offer incentives packages to encourage airlines to expand service. McEwing says the incentive varies depending on the type of service being added. For example, if a new airline adds a new destination, the airport might offer marketing support (e.g., radio and newspaper ads in both English and French) and reduced landing fees anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.

The primary employer in the region is IBM, which employs some 7,500, but there are also several large institutions, including medical centers and universities, that provide customers for the airport, says McEwing. The passenger split is 60 percent leisure, 40 percent business.

Continued investment
Since 2000 some $24 million in renovations and expansion has been invested at Burlington. Most recently, the airport completed a $15 million expansion project which added five gates — four with boarding bridges — and customer service areas at the north end of the terminal, in addition to a 948-space parking garage and an elevated connected walkway.

Burlington is very much a ‘sense of place’ community, relates McEwing, so the airport design features maple and granite — products that are native to Vermont. “You get the feeling you’re in Vermont,” says McEwing.

The Dallas-based Atlantic Aviation chain provides primary fixed base operator services here. Among Burlington’s other tenants are Heritage Flight Services, a charter operator with some 13 aircraft; a Pratt & Whitney engine service facility; and a Vermont Air National Guard unit with F-16s and Army Guard with Blackhawk helicopters and an operational readiness center.

A new corporate aviation/cargo complex is being developed on the south end of airport property. According to Searles, the airport is filling in depressed acreage, creating 8.3 acres of new land that will be used for GA hangar construction and cargo facilities. The $106 million project encompasses some 28 acres.

“We’re creating a significant area for development,” Searles says. “By creating this new land, we’ll be able to designate a whole new area for general aviation.” DHL and Fedex currently operate out of Burlington, and Searles anticipates their activity will increase once the new area is operational. He says the project spent 12 years in the permitting process, and the effort included the purchase and mitigation of 50 acres of swamp land located some eight miles away from the airport.