Pulling the Chattanooga Airport out of its nosedive

Pulling the Chattanooga Airport out of its nosedive

June 25th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

The Chattanooga Airport terminal.

The Chattanooga Airport terminal.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Who flies out of the Chattanooga Airport? Apparently only people with more money than sense.

Increasingly, Chattanooga-area fliers realize that departing Lovell Field doesn't save enough time or eliminate enough hassle to justify the hefty additional cost.

A search on several online airline booking sites found weekend flights from Chattanooga to Los Angeles in July starting at $715, but fares from Atlanta were only $426 -- and plane tickets from Nashville to L.A. were even less, only $371.

A midweek flight to New York in August is nearly $626 from Chattanooga. Flying out of Nashville instead of Chattanooga saves $427, and departing from Atlanta is $388 cheaper than jetting out of Lovell Field.

Except in very rare cases, it's almost always cheaper to make the 127-mile drive from downtown Chattanooga to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport or the 133-mile trip to the Nashville International Airport than to fly out of Chattanooga -- even after figuring in the cost of gas and the higher parking expenses.

Add in the fact that flying out of Chattanooga usually means an additional layover that eats up as much time as a two-hour trip to Atlanta or Nashville, and the benefits of flying out of Chattanooga appear negligible, if they exist at all.

That reality is taking a toll on the airport's bottom line.

Two out of three air travelers from the Chattanooga metro area fly from other cities, according to a 2011 study. Fifty-three percent of Chattanooga-area travelers flew from Atlanta instead of Lovell Field. On Sunday, the Times Free Press reported that passenger boardings at the Chattanooga Airport are off about 7 percent through May versus last year, at a time when national air traffic is growing.

The Chattanooga Airport Authority, the bureaucracy in charge of running the airport (and at fault for many of its shortcomings), hopes to encourage more area residents to fly out of Lovell Field instead of Atlanta, Nashville and other nearby airports. But rather than focus on drawing passengers by luring additional airlines and more flights into the Chattanooga Airport to create competition and force down ticket prices, the Airport Authority hopes to advertise its way out of the mess.

The Airport Authority is considering hiring a marketing firm and pouring hundreds of thousands of the tax dollars the airport collects off passengers into buying ads, specifically in the North Atlanta suburbs that are nearly as close to Chattanooga as they are to the Atlanta airport.

That perceived "quick fix" of reminding folks in Sandy Springs, Roswell and Alpharetta about the Chattanooga Airport won't work. That's because many people in those areas know the same thing that those of us in Ooltewah, Red Bank and Rossville already know: The Chattanooga Airport is outdated, the bathrooms are in disrepair, the floors and walls are dingy and dirty, the landscaping is shabby, there isn't a decent place to get a meal or a drink while you're waiting on a flight, and it costs an arm and a leg to fly to fly out of Lovell Field.

No amount of ads will change that. What could've changed the airport considerably, however, would've been the $7.2 million in taxpayer-funded grants from the state and federal government the Airport Authority spent on its crackpot idea of building a private plane service and storage facility -- even though there was already a well-regarded privately owned facility that wasn't operating at its capacity.

That money, and the more than $1 million the airport has lost bailing out the operation of the government-owned private plane facility, could've gone to improving the passenger terminal and making the Chattanooga Airport more competitive. Instead, it went to making rich people, and their corporate jets, comfortable ... or, at least, it would have if anybody ever used the facility.

The airport needs a breath of fresh air, and the Airport Authority needs an overhaul.

That can begin tonight when the Chattanooga City Council considers Mayor Andy Berke's reappointment of longtime Airport Authority member Mike Mallen to the board. Mallen was one of the biggest advocates of wasting millions of dollars on the harebrained private plane facility and has seemingly done more harm than good to the airport and its image. The council would be wise to reject Mallen's appointment.

Berke can do his part to change the culture of the Airport Authority, as well. Months and months go by without Lynda Griffin and Bob McKamey attending an Airport Authority meeting. The mayor should replace them with Chattanoogans who are committed to turning the airport around. Add in the additional opportunity to appoint a new board member created by the resignation of Moses Freeman from the Airport Authority because of conflicts resulting from his election to the City Council, and the Airport Authority could soon have four new members to inject sound ideas and rational judgment into the nine-person board.

The Chattanooga Airport is in the midst of a nose dive. With the poor management, bad decisions, unwelcoming atmosphere and high prices of flights that currently weigh the airport down, it's reasonable to wonder if Lovell Field can ever become a dynamic, competitive place from which to fly. With the current members of the Airport Authority in place, it's doubtful. But if Burke and the Chattanooga City Council are willing to take the lead and nominate new people with fresh ideas to the Airport Authority, the sky could be the limit for the Chattanooga Airport.