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Hagerstown Regional Airport carrier Allegiant Air: Routes must 'prove themselves'

Airport officials express confidence local ridership will meet expectations

Airport officials express confidence local ridership will meet expectations

September 27, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Hagerstown Regional Airport's new commercial carrier has a history of canceling flights that are not profitable, and once canceled a route before service got off the ground.

But airport officials said they are confident Allegiant will have the ridership it needs to keep it flying out of Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Allegiant Air on Sept. 17 announced plans to start twice-weekly nonstop flights between Hagerstown and Orlando Sanford International Airport in November.

The flights will end a yearlong absence of commercial service at the airport.

Allegiant Air is one of only two U.S. airline companies reporting profits this year (the other is Southwest). Allegiant officials attribute the company's financial strength in part to its willingness to make changes when profits start to fall.

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The company, which operates about 100 routes, has added more than 25 routes in the last year and has canceled at least six others.

"While cutting routes is obviously not something we enjoy doing, it's also part of responsibly operating a business," said Robert Ashcroft, vice president of planning for Allegiant.

Ashcroft said the company generally gives new routes at least six months to "prove themselves," but has cut flights more aggressively in the last year as oil prices have soared.

The company recently canceled plans to fly between Marion, Ill., and Las Vegas before flights began.

Allegiant generally signs length-of-service contracts of one year or less for new flights and sometimes signs no time commitment at all.

The company has no length-of-service contract in Hagerstown, Allegiant Air spokeswoman Tyri Squyres said.

Allegiant likes to keep planes 90 percent full, on average, but will settle for 80 percent booking initially in Hagerstown, an airline official said at a press conference earlier this month.

At the same press conference, Greg Larsen, business development manager of Hagerstown Regional Airport, said the airport is confident that Hagerstown will meet the 80 percent goal.

The jets Allegiant is to fly into and out of the local airport beginning Nov. 14 have 150 seats.

"We are going into this believing that it is going to work," Airport Director Carolyn S. Motz said Thursday.

Motz said the Hagerstown area has a market for an all-jet, direct-flight service to Orlando.

"We fit (Allegiant's) mold perfectly. People in this area have long wanted service to Orlando," she said. "We know this area will respond to this wonderful service."

Motz said the airport is marketing the service and the airline is buying advertising.

Motz also said that the practice of cutting routes is not unique to Allegiant.

"There's not one airline that hasn't cut flights," she said. "Not one."

"It's unfortunate that a story like this would get written before the airline has even arrived in Hagerstown," Motz said. "If you look at the last year and a half at the record of airlines in general, how much service has been canceled? Here is an airline adding service in a lot of places."

Ridership a priority

At Columbia Metropolitan Airport in Columbia, S.C., Allegiant canceled a daily flight to St. Petersburg, Fla., in February 2007 after two months.

While the flights were well-booked for the first few weeks, ridership dropped dramatically after that, said Lynne Douglas, the airport's director of marketing.

"We weren't filling planes," said Douglas, who noted that the airport, which has contracts with several major carriers, is used primarily by business travelers and might not have been a good fit with Allegiant's vacation-destination model.

Douglas said she never has worked with an airline that has left the airport as quickly as Allegiant.

Don Howard, operations director for Kinston (N.C.) Regional Jetport, said Allegiant had no problem filling planes there. Still, the company canceled flights between Kinston and Orlando Sanford earlier this year.

While the flights regularly were 90 percent full, Howard said passengers didn't book enough rental cars and hotel rooms through Allegiant, which offers vacation packages with its flights.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Co., the parent company of Allegiant Air, offers air travel both on a stand-alone basis and bundled with hotel rooms, rental cars and other travel-related services, according to its Web site.

Allegiant finished a one-year contract at Kinston and gave about six weeks' notice before leaving, Howard said.

Earlier this month, Allegiant cited rising fuel costs and "competitive influences" in its decision to cancel flights between Las Vegas and Lincoln, Neb.

John Wood, executive director of Lincoln Municipal Airport, said Lincoln's proximity to Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Neb., about 50 miles away, was a factor in Allegiant's decision.

"We lose a lot of air traffic to (Eppley Airfield)," Wood said.

Wood said Allegiant was "doing fine" until fuel prices began to climb. Allegiant raised ticket prices while Southwest Airlines, which flies out of Eppley, did not, he said.

Change of mind

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