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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Huntsville International: A Tale of Two Airports

This is the third in a series about transportation in the Huntsville area.

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.
So, what can be done? Well, there's a relatively simple solution....

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:
  1. Washington, DC (National)
  2. Orlando
  3. Los Angeles (LAX)
  4. Dallas-Fort Worth
  5. Baltimore (BWI)
  6. Houston (Bush Intercontinental)
  7. New York-La Guardia
  8. Las Vegas
  9. Denver
  10. Boston (Logan)
Out of these ten destinations, HSV does not currently have non-stop service to Orlando, LAX, BWI, LaGuardia, Las Vegas, and Boston. And AirTran's hubs/focus cities (according to Wikipedia) are: Atlanta, Orlando, BWI, Boston, and Milwaukee. Could it be any more obvious? Don't blame it on the economy, or that "we're too small"-- Knoxville and Asheville, both smaller airports, are getting AirTran next month. Also, the old Southwest excuse for not coming to HSV doesn't apply here, as AirTran does not serve Nashville or Birmingham. Plus, our "close, but not too close" proximity to Atlanta, AirTran's largest hub, could put us in a good position to become an overflow/secondary hub.

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.


codelemur said...

Hi there! I've been reading your blog for awhile now. Really love all the updates on what's going on in the HSV area.

A couple of points about this article:

* Southwest is not usually that good a deal, especially out of BHM and BNA. Better airfares can usually be found. Quite often, a legacy carrier will be matching BN's fares.

* Knoxville may be a smaller airport size-wise, but it serves a metro area twice the size of HSV. There are more than 1 million residents in Knoxville's CSA versus 510,000 in the Huntsville CSA.

* When I fly somewhere, I usually check HSV (local), BHM, BNA, MEM, CHA, ATL and TYS. Interestingly enough, HSV is usually the cheapest. Recently, US Airways had a $500 roundtrip to LGW, whereas all of the above airports were at $700+ for the same route. Occasionally, BNA will come in slightly cheaper (usually a fare-match against Southwest), but when I factor the higher parking cost and ~2 hour drive (which really sucks considering I usually have to take a 6am or so flight out) HSV usually ends up breaking even.

* AirTran had service to Knoxville back in the '90s when I lived there, with service to ATL and MCO. They eventually pulled out of that market because Delta matched their fares dollar for dollar on every route they flew out of TYS. Of course, once AirTran pulled out, Delta jacked the fares right back up. Even this time, AirTran is only going to fly to MCO, and their only competition to the Orlando area is Allegiant, which flies to Samford and not International, and only twice a week. Even with that, I will be extremely surprised if service out of TYS on AirTran lasts. I will be even more surprised if we don't just "happen" to see Delta launch a TYS-MCO route in the coming months if AirTran's TYS-MCO has a good load.

Now, granted this was in the 90s, and AirTran's route structure has changed dramatically since then. There is a possibility they could compete. But they have to be willing to stay, to wait out the fare war that will happen and build up their local flyer base. Allegiant wasn't willing to do this (that and nobody knew they were here - none of my coworkers did; the only reason I did is because I'm an airline junkie).

Unfortunately, I really feel that is what would happen if AirTran came into HSV. Don't get me wrong - I would love a low-fare to come into HSV, but if they match routes with any of the legacy carriers, the legacy carriers will run them out of town by matching their fares dollar for dollar and relying on customer loyalty and access to a larger route network to win more seats. We need a low-fare with staying power to come in, and I just don't think that AirTran would be willing to wait it out and grow their market share.

Huntsville_Secede said...

Good information.. I feel like Huntsville airport is poised to become something great but just can't break through the barrier. With all the BRAC jobs and commands moving here I think our airport needs to become better for passengers traffic.

James said...

What I'm hoping with AirTran is that it'll start with a few popular destinations-- Atlanta, Orlando (MCO), and BWI-- and add more (like Boston) later.

I did worry a little about the serious competition AirTran would probably get from Delta, but after doing a little late night research on Wikipedia, they're a bit less intimidating than they were even a year ago, even with the Northwest merger. Delta dropped most of its flights to Orlando when it dropped HSV last year, and MCO's no longer a Delta hub. Delta's never been big at BWI. So that leaves Atlanta. This is the only destination that I can see Delta give AirTran some serious competition. But looking at other similar-sized airports where AirTran flies to ATL, Delta does too, and AirTran doesn't seem to be going anywhere (One example- Charleston, SC International). Could it work out different in HSV? Absolutely.

There were problems with the last two low-fare carriers at HSV. Independence Air went to good destinations (Dulles and MCO), but they were new and expanded too quickly. Allegiant Air had been around for a while, but it had odd, leisure-oriented destinations. (I thought they had adequate advertising-- you can still see their billboards on I-65 near Columbia, TN).

AirTran should avoid the problems that Independence and Allegiant had. They've been around for a while and they go to destinations where there is a demand at HSV. Orlando has demand because of tourism and NASA, BWI also has demand because of NASA along with BRAC (being close to Goddard/DC), and Atlanta has demand because it's just plain huge airport-wise. And that's why I think AirTran is the best bet for a successful low-fare carrier at HSV.

Jordan said...

Just as we all suspected, it has now been confirmed that Huntsville has the most expensive airfares in the country. See the news story here.

Note that some of the lowest airfares belong to airports like Las Vegas, Orlando, and Dallas' Love Field. Yup, that's right - they're all major destinations for Southwest Airlines.

Like you said, Huntsville needs to land a low-cost carrier to fix this situation, and AirTran is a natural choice. The question is: does anyone with the power to do anything at HSV actually care about bringing them to the area?