A little disclaimer here: I don't fly. Not that I have anything against it, I just like seeing the country from the ground, rather than 30,000 feet above it. But on the rare occasion that I do, I fly out of Nashville, which I'm sure many of you do as well. More on that later.
Huntsville International (HSV) is truly a tale of two airports- a cargo airport and a passenger airport. The cargo side of the airport is the pinnacle of our area's infrastructure, a product of visionary leadership. It's the largest airport in terms of cargo volume in the state of Alabama. It has the second-longest runway (nearly 2 miles long) in the Southeast, making it long enough to carry the world's largest airplanes. It is because of this that we have a true "international" airport, with cargo flights to Europe, Mexico, and Asia.
But the passenger side of the airport is plagued by several problems, despite having 1.25 million passsengers last year, a clean/modern/efficient terminal, and an aggressive expansion plan which includes new runways and terminals to the west of the airport in Limestone County (This is in addition to the $65 million expansion project that is well underway).
- Outside of the "legacy" hubs-- Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit-- and government hub Washington-- the airport can't seem to keep its destinations. Delta started non-stop service to New York-LaGuardia last spring, and ended it in September due to high gas prices. In the past few years, service has also been dropped to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Newark, and Las Vegas.
- HSV has problems with keeping/getting a low-fare carrier; therefore, it is more expensive to fly out of HSV than other airports in the region. However, it is not the airport's fault; they're just not lucky-- Independence Air went bankrupt in 2006, and Allegiant pulled out of the market because of bad service in 2008. Southwest, the original low-fare carrier, has around 25% of the market share, but refuses to serve Huntsville directly because of the proximity to Birmingham and Nashville, two cities Southwest already serves. (And yet, it serves four airports within 50 miles of each other in the Los Angeles area.)
- Access to larger, cheaper airports is easy. Birmingham and Nashville are two hours away, and Atlanta, one of the largest airports in the world, is four hours. And, as you see with Southwest's large market share here, people use it to their advantage.
GET AIRTRAN! Do whatever it takes to get AirTran, or any low-fare carrier for that matter. But AirTran is a match made in heaven for HSV. And here's why-- look at the top final destinations (excluding top-ranked by far Atlanta) for HSV travelers in 2008:
- Washington, DC (National)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Dallas-Fort Worth
- Baltimore (BWI)
- Houston (Bush Intercontinental)
- New York-La Guardia
- Las Vegas
- Boston (Logan)
So, let's get AirTran to begin non-stop flights from HSV to Atlanta, Orlando, BWI, and Boston. Then we'll have 7 of those top 10 destinations. As for the other destinations on that list, get Delta to restart its New York flights now that gas prices are back down, get American or United to fly to LAX (that is, admittedly, a long shot), and forget about Las Vegas (HSV's a business airport). Another good destination to think about with plenty of international connections is Philadelphia; that's something US Airways could do. That would give HSV non-stop flights to every major East Coast city except Miami.
If AirTran is successful here (it should be), maybe HSV will undergo a transformation like what happened with Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio, an airport that had less than 500,000 passengers go through in 1995. After AirTran came to the airport, its growth exploded; in 2008, 1.47 million passengers went through the airport. It is now advertised as an affordable alternative to busier Cleveland International, 50 miles away. While it's unlikely such a growth rate will happen here, having a stable low-fare carrier will lower fares and keep people from driving to the other airports in the region.
All things considered, the airport's issues are much less dire than the needs of the rest of Huntsville's transportation system, and the solutions are much simpler.