People ask me what we do to attract airlines. I’ve touched on this several times, but have never brought it together in one posting. Here’s what we do:
- We talk to airlines on a regular basis and provide information. The first and most important thing airlines care about is passenger numbers. How many people use the airport and what do the trends show?
- We make airlines aware of our incentive program: A) marketing incentive: maximum of $50,000 available for additional or new service. B) We routinely waive landing fees, gate fees and common use rental fees for new airlines entering the market. The waiver of fees is temporary, but long enough to let the airline establish service. C) Ground services. We are one of a handful of airports in the country to offer ground services to the airlines and it's at least part of the reason why we have service to five of our 12 destinations: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Orlando, Las Vegas and Tampa/St. Petersburg. More on this in a minute…
- Besides courting the airlines, we court people (potential passengers) living within 70 miles of the airport. We try to make them aware of the airport and what it offers. We do this through speaking engagements and advertising. The goal is to get more people to use the airport—remember—airlines care about passenger numbers. The more the better.
Getting back to ground services—the following is adapted from a story published several months ago in the airport newsletter. It should give you a good idea of why our ground service program is so important.
An Unremarkable Sight
Delta/Comair flight 4303 creeps into Gate 4 at the Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF). When it stops, several workers begin servicing the plane and unloading luggage. It’s a scene repeated thousands of times every day across the globe. It would be unremarkable except for one thing: these workers don’t work for the airline or a contractor--they work for the airport.
The fact that SGF offers the service doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. “We were one of the first airports, if not the first to provide it,” says Gary Cyr, SGF director of aviation. “When you think about it, they’re not only servicing the plane, they’re engaged in economic development.”
Airplanes need many things when they land: baggage unloaded and loaded, water tanks filled and lavatories serviced. It’s generically referred to as “ground services.” Airline employees and private contractors perform it in most corners of the aviation world. But at SGF the airlines have the option of using airport employees. From the airline’s point-of-view, it’s a good way to cut cost without affecting customer service. From the airport’s perspective, it’s a lure that can attract new airlines or entice an existing airline to add service.
An Accidental Occurrence
This story couldn’t be told if TWA was still in business. The bankrupt airline was bought out by American in 2001. Its absence at SGF meant more than a loss in airline service: TWA was the only airline in Springfield willing to provide ground services for large charter airplanes. Those charters were typically full of Branson tourists. Charles Jackson, who was TWA’s manager at SGF when the airline folded, had an idea. “I pitched airport management the idea of forming a department that would service the charters.” A month later SGF was in the ground service business and Jackson worked for the airport.
The first challenge: equipment. There’s the cost of the tractors (called tugs) that pull luggage carts; the truck that deices planes in cold, wet weather; the tug that pushes an airplane away from the gate—the list goes on and on. “An airline can easily spend half-a-million dollars to set up shop at a given airport,” says Jackson. He convinced American to sell TWA’s old equipment for less than $10,000.
For the first two-and-a-half-years, Jackson and the new department serviced charters. Then, in April 2004, Delta decided to come to town with daily flights and it needed ground services. Jackson’s department bid for the service and won. This was a significant step forward—not only was SGF servicing an airline that had a daily schedule, it was saving the airline a significant amount of money.
Fast forward to April 2005: Allegiant Airlines, a low cost carrier providing niche service to vacation cities, wanted to start flying between SGF and Las Vegas. The airline had flown charters to Springfield, so it was familiar with the airport’s ground handling. Jackson pitched the airline a bold idea: SGF would provide “below wing” and “above wing.” In industry slang, “below wing” refers to ground services. “Above wing” refers to the staff at the ticket counter and gate. Allegiant jumped.
Now SGF provided below wing for the charters, Delta, and Allegiant and above wing for Allegiant. This was unchartered territory--the challenges mounted. Every airline has its own rules and standard operating procedures. The SGF staff had to learn them for each airline. “I had to send people out-of-town to each airline’s training classes,” says Jackson.
Within a month of beginning service to Las Vegas, Allegiant doubled the number of flights. Then in October it added service to Orlando. As the work load increased, the size of the SGF service staff increased. It currently has 24 members handling at least 43 flights a week. “It’s not a huge revenue stream, but it helps develop airline service,” says Mark Roy, SGF’s business director. The program has done so well that airports across the country are paying attention.
For the past year-and-half SGF representatives have been in demand at airport conferences. “There’s extremely high interest from both airports and airlines,” says Jackson. “The airline representatives are saying, ‘yes, this is what we want airports to do!’”
Cyr is now asked to speak on the subject on a regular basis. Airport representatives jammed the room at a recent meeting of Airports Council International. Managers from bigger airports, including Orlando and Raleigh-Durham, asked questions and wanted more information. Cyr sums up the conference this way: “airport ground handling was all the buzz.”