Chattanooga Airport has 2nd best year in two decades

Chattanooga Airport has 2nd best year in two decades

January 28th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

The Chattanooga Airport terminal.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Anthony Frampton said he likes to fly into Chattanooga Airport because it's an easy destination in which to get around - unlike some larger passenger terminals.

"There's not a lot of confusion," said the Charlotte, N.C., man who was traveling into Chattanooga on business.

More business people are using Chattanooga Airport, officials said, helping push passenger boardings up nearly 1 percent last year as departures hit the second best mark in the last two decades at Lovell Field.

Boardings of 309,235 last year were just behind 310,414 passengers in 2009, according to the airport's operations reports. Also, last year's mark was less than 2,000 passengers off the all-time high set at the airport in 1993, figures show.

Chattanooga Airport chief Terry Hart said it finished the year strong, citing a 26 percent hike in boardings in December over the same month in 2012. Hart said weather hurt boardings in late 2012.

"There were weather events in the system that caused disruptions in service," he said.

Overall, Hart said 2013 boardings growth, up almost 10,000 passengers since 2010, is in large part powered by the region's business sector.

"It's the continued economic development in the community," he said. Hart noted that air cargo growth, for example, was up 37 percent in 2013 over the prior year at the airport.

The airport chief said that more customers are simply choosing to start their trips in Chattanooga. He said fares are competitive with other airports in the region.

"When you check fares, in some cases they're less expensive than in Atlanta and Nashville," Hart said.

Also, the airport continues to deal with so-called passenger leakage, in which people from the Chattanooga region drive to other airports to fly.

The latest airport study showed that nearly two of every three air travelers from metro Chattanooga fly from other cities, such as Atlanta, Nashville and Knoxville. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation's busiest, alone captured 53 percent of air travelers from Chattanooga, the study found.

Atlanta's airport boarded 33.8 million passengers on domestic flights through October, the latest figures available. That's a 1.7 percent drop from its 2012 passenger traffic.

Nashville International Airport had total boardings and arrivals of 10.3 million passengers last year, up about 3 percent, according to the airport.

But Chattanooga Airport officials cited the ease of parking, boarding and baggage handling at Lovell Field as helping to encourage more passengers to use the facility last year.

Hart said it's easier to get through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Lovell Field than in busy Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta.

In addition, parking at Chattanooga Airport is easier than in bigger airports, Hart said. However, the increase in boardings has put pressure on airport parking, prompting it to set up an overflow area when needed.

Airport officials have talked of adding more spaces adjacent to existing parking with the buyout of general aviation operator TAC Air's facilities earlier this month. They said that adding surface parking could save millions of dollars by not having to build a parking garage.

Airport figures show that Delta Airlines carriers continued to far outpace others in the Chattanooga market as the most popular airline. Atlanta-based Delta Connection carriers boarded nearly 52 percent of all air traffic in Chattanooga last year.

Another air traveler, Jim Parker, said recently he flies out of Chattanooga when he can, noting he likes the nonstop between Lovell Field and Chicago, and that he wants to see even more direct options out of Chattanooga so he wouldn't have to drive to Atlanta or Nashville for a flight.

"I'd rather fly Chattanooga," the Soddy-Daisy man said.

Hart said he doesn't foresee any changes on the horizon in the airport's airline schedules, though talks are ongoing with carriers about adding service.

"We continue to have dialogue with [airlines] here and others that are not," he said. The challenge is that carriers had been losing a lot of money and have just returned to profitability, the airport CEO said.

"They're very averse to taking on risk," he said.

For an airline such as United, for example, it doesn't have extra airplanes sitting around.

"They'll have to take it away from somewhere else," said Hart, adding that "there's a great story here. We'll continue to fight that battle and keep talking about it."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.