By Laura Labovitz
With an average of 14 flights a day out of the Gainesville Regional Airport on American and Delta Airways, local residents aren’t exactly in the middle of a traveling haven.
The County Regional Airport Authority, alongside stakeholders including the University of Florida and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, has brought in a consultant to come up with a business pitch to attract further airline growth to the local airport.
Representing Gainesville is consultant Martin Kammerman. He shared a new Air Service Development Strategic Plan to the community on Thursday, May 12. At the presentation Kammerman expanded upon community challenges and suggested growth opportunities for the airport.
“Since the airlines have limited assets, like planes, the community competes with other destinations for those assets. The airlines are seeking to find the best revenue for that plane. Gainesville has to win by presenting a stronger business case,” said the Airport’s PR and Governmental Affairs Manager, Laura Aguiar.
Kammerman’s presentation focused on the realistic prospects of the airport and how this outlook can translate into further growth. While many ideas of how to pitch the airport to airlines were discussed, the basic message of the presentation was the need for continued local passenger use before any airline would show further interest.
As an air service development consultant, Kammerman works with small and medium size airports to help them “understand the big picture of the larger airline and airport world and make sense of it,” he said. He worked for airlines for 25 years, consulting on the other side of the table.
“I am primarily a numbers person who can understand the wide range of statistics and put them into plain English terms as well as talk to airlines,” Kammerman said.
While no airline has offered to join or expand service at the airport, Kammerman presented terminal expansion concepts that could be put into play if extra space for future new airline equipment and planes became necessary.
On a positive note, Kammerman provided statistics showing an overall passenger growth pattern in the last six years. The airport passenger rate jumped 50 percent in the last ten years- with an all-time high of over 410,000 passengers in 2015. For prospective airline additions, this growth trend is a critical factor.
“Quite simply, people can help by using their hometown airport. The stronger our traffic numbers, the more attractive our market,” said Aguiar. “Businesses may step in if there is initial interest from an airline to add service in the form of participating in an incentive program.”
Airlines face profit margin dilemmas that hold them back from expansion in cities like Gainesville and often call for cuts when profit is not meeting corporate expectation. Flying locally gained ever greater importance after the recent removal of direct flights to Orlando and Tampa. Gainesville is not unique for experiencing service cuts- smaller airports around the country are facing the downward trend.
In his presentation, Kammerman explained that with only three destinations and no low cost airline, Gainesville’s passenger traffic leaks to larger airports with more flights and lower fares.
A push for a community wide effort comes from the Airport Authority and the University of Florida that is involved as a stakeholder and is sharing the expense of bringing the consulting firm in to help create and promote a service expansion plan for the airport.
“UF is working with the airport – along with others in the community – to attract more service from the airlines,” said UF’s Community Relations Assistant Vice President Susan Crowley. “Increase in the flight and route numbers will benefit all at UF and the community at large.”
Crowley is one of two UF employees serving on the Gainesville Alachua County Regional Airport Authority. UF’s Vice President for Research, Dr. David Norton, serves on the Airport Authority alongside Crowley.
While it sounds like a conundrum, the consultant’s message was clear: to get noticed by airlines, passengers need to choose to travel through the local airport more often, even though Gainesville does not currently offer many direct routes.
“UF students, faculty and staff can fly Gainesville! As our numbers grow – the chances of more flights and more routes will increase,” Crowley said, mirroring the sentiment shared during the presentation of a need for a grassroots push toward airport growth.
Of the three direct routes currently available, flights to Atlanta are the most popular option for local passengers. The catch-22 can be resolved over time, especially if locals continue to support the few options currently available as a proactive way to bring better choices to town in the future.
“There are legal limits imposed by the FAA regarding airport incentives, but they may include reduced rents and fees for a set time while the airline builds passenger traffic,” said Aguiar.
Airport fees make up seven percent of an airline’s budget, according to the presentation. As with any business, airlines need to feel that they are going to receive a strong enough profit margin before they begin to consider adding new flight routes at any airport.