Westward expansion: Chattanooga Airport service to Houston sought by board

photo A vehicle drives past the main entrance to the Chattanooga Airport.

AIR TRAFFICChattanooga Airport passenger boardings though October compared with a year ago and change:* Jan. - Oct. 2011: 252,848* Jan. - Oct. 2012: 262,441* Change: up 3.79 percentSource: Chattanooga Airport

Chattanooga Airport officials are looking south as they work up their wish list of new nonstop air service.

Houston, a big connection point for travelers flying to other Southern cities, the West and to Mexico, was raised as a site that would fit Chattanooga's air service needs.

"That's clearly the first market we need," said Airport Authority member Jim Hall.

Hall recalled that as late as 2008, the city had nonstop service to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Continental Airlines, which has merged with United Airlines.

"We had service to Houston and we tried to save it," he said about the flights, which Continental stated were cut because of rising fuel prices.

Tom Snow, another panel member, said his company flies to Houston a lot, and Volkswagen employees travel frequently from Chattanooga to the automaker's Mexico facilities.

Terry Hart, the Chattanooga Airport's chief executive, said Houston is "a great opportunity," and officials here have supplied the VW travel data to airlines.

"At this point, a lot their travel is around Delta," he said.

Hart said the Airport Authority has agreed to hire airline travel expert Michael Boyd to craft an air service master plan for Chattanooga.

The plan's scope will include a detailed analysis of the air service market, the industry and local opportunities for growth, Hart said at a recent meeting of the panel.

The study will cost $16,750, he said, and it's slated to be ready around March 2013.

Hart said there's a lot of consolidation going on in the airline industry, and he cited talk about a potential merger between American Airlines and US Airways.

"We have some great stories going on right now in economic growth," he said about Chattanooga. But, the CEO said, airlines are cautious.

"There's a lot of hesitation on the carriers' part," Hart said.

Authority member Farzana Mitchell said the board should get an update on executing the ideas that come out of Boyd's report.