Sal LaRocca, of Ooltewah, flew to Phoenix last week, but he rode a shuttle van to Nashville's airport instead of leaving from Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.
"It's a nonstop flight," he said about the Southwest Airlines service, adding that he likes to fly from Chattanooga when he can.
LaRocca is typical of a majority of Chattanooga air travelers who drive to other cities to board their airline flights.
A study by a consultant hired by Chattanooga's airport shows that nearly two of every three travelers in metropolitan Chattanooga fly out of other cities.
With fewer direct flights and sometimes higher fares than at other airports, Lovell Field garnered just 35 percent of metropolitan Chattanooga's fliers over the past year, according to figures compiled by the Sixel Consulting Group of Dallas.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest, captured 53 percent of the air travelers from the area, Sixel's report said.
Nashville International Airport picked up more than 10 percent of Chattanooga's air travelers while Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport garnered 1.6 percent, according to Sixel.
Two carriers which don't directly serve Chattanooga, Southwest and AirTran, captured almost 13 percent of all area traffic, the report said.
Also, if only travelers making international flights are included, Chattanooga keeps just 17.7 percent of fliers, with Atlanta's airport wooing 82.8 percent, the study indicated.
Michael Lum, Sixel's air service strategy and development consultant, said the study shows that Chattanooga's airport does well in keeping local travelers when they're flying to cities with a nonstop connection.
"Chattanooga is generally able to retain a high share of traffic in markets where this is nonstop service," he said, citing such cities Orlando, Tampa, Detroit and Washington, D.C.
In the report, local counties included Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade and Walker in Georgia.
Figures stay up
The number of local people driving to other airports has remained stubbornly high over the last decade.
But Chattanooga airport officials said they plan to use the latest study, which includes detailed data on traffic patterns and fares, to help them woo more flights and lower fares.
Mike Landguth, the airport's president, said the report provides a baseline from which to develop air service strategies and make pitches to airlines.
"Reports like this one give us a good snapshot in time and help us understand shifts in demand to grow new destinations," he said about the $15,000 study.
Officials are working to set up another meeting with United Airlines to make a case for it bringing service to Chattanooga, Landguth said. United flies into Newark, N.J., which serves New York, as well as to Houston, which could benefit companies such as Volkswagen, which has a plant and suppliers in Mexico.
"These conversations often take months and years to bear fruit," Landguth said.
But Landguth said he is encouraged about community growth and confident the airport's travelers can support new service.
Through August, Chattanooga airport's passenger boardings are up 5.92 percent over last year to 200,715 passenger, figures show.
In 2010, Chattanooga's airport boarded 292,830 passengers, down 5.96 percent from the previous year, to rank as No. 153 in passenger activity among the nation's 401 commercial airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
By comparison, boardings rose last year by 2.01 percent at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to more than 43.1 million and passenger boardings rose 1.07 percent last year at Nashville International Airport to more than 4.4 million, according to FAA data released last week.
Having quality air service is a key to attracting business, said Tom Edd Wilson, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive.
"It's a dollars and cents issue for a lot of companies," he said. "If you can get your executives and workforce people here quickly to do business and do it without a great deal of delay, you're saving money."
Landguth said the report shows that average fares are competitive with surrounding airports.
The average one-way fare users of Chattanooga's airport pay is $194, the study said. That's compared to Atlanta's airport where the average fare is $236, the report showed.
Lum said the average one-way fare is much higher in Atlanta because of the international flights. Just measuring domestic fares, the average fare at Hartsfield-Jackson is $163.
"Fares are consistently cited as a top issue for travelers," Landguth said. "Through the addition of more airlines and routes over the years, fares have become increasingly competitive."
In addition to other airports, Lovell Field also faces competition from shuttle company Groome Transportation.
John Collison, operations director for Groome Transportation, said his Ringgold Road business shuttles travelers via vans directly to passenger loading areas at airports in Atlanta and Nashville. Groome's business in Chattanooga is up between 10 percent and 15 percent so far this year, Collison said.
He cited new industry in the Chattanooga area, such as Volkswagen and Wacker.
"We do carry a lot of Germans," Collison said.
The business, which runs 19 round-trip shuttle vans daily to Atlanta and 14 a day to Nashville, plans to invest in a new building at its location and operate all its vehicles with propane fuel, he said.
Gordon Guild, of Ooltewah, traveled last week to Kenya and took Groome to Atlanta's airport, where he was connecting to a flight to Amsterdam.
Taking the taxi service allowed him to avoid a flight change in Atlanta.
But his wife, Carol, said she usually flies out of Chattanooga.
"I like the airport," she said. "It's small and easy to get around in."
Sixel's report showed a significant hike in international travel out of Chattanooga in the first quarter, up 40.2 percent over the same period a year ago. That's a trend Chattanooga airport officials would like to see continue.
Wilson of the Chamber said better service to Mexico is on his wish list because of VW's plant in Puebla, that nation's second-largest city.