NEWS-Jet Blues: Richmond airport steals CHO thunder


Richmond International Airport dedicated its brand new $78 million two-story terminal July 30, a 155,000-square-foot sparkling glass behemoth that attests to the wonders of low cost airlines. It's a phenomenon that seems to be putting a dent in airports that have long carried Charlottesvillians.

Not too long ago, according to Troy Bell of the Capital Region Airport Authority, things weren't looking so good for RIC.

"We were losing more than a million travelers a year," he says. "People were driving farther away to find low fares."

That all changed when the Richmond airport successfully wooed and won two low-cost carriers: AirTran started service in June 2005, JetBlue in March 2006.

Now, according to the Authority, the state capital's airport has experienced 25 consecutive months of passenger traffic growth and served 3.3 million travelers last year; a stunning 32 percent increase from 2004. "It's all due to the low-cost carriers," says Bell.

Charlottesville-Albemarle airport has had some successes of its own. However, after several years of steadily advancing passenger traffic, the number of travelers in 2006 fell back to 2004's totals. Similar preliminary statistics for this year suggest that growth has hit a plateau.

CHO's Barbara Hutchinson notes the spate of airline bankruptcies hasn't cut any flights into Charlottesville, but it has limited some connections. She believes the main reason CHO's growth has dropped off, however, is the recent launch of discount services at larger nearby airports.

Charlottesville resident Ashley Morse has taken full advantage of those. Morse, who flies every week for her job with Aramark food services, says she always switches between the convenient proximity of CHO and the numerous direct flights of RIC. But like many travelers, the choice between airports for Morse is usually decided by one vital element: "Basically," she says, "it comes down to price."

Even mighty Dulles has felt some pain in that department. "We've had low-fare carriers at Dulles dating back to the 1980s," notes Rob Yingling of the Metropolitan-Washington Airport Authority. But the Chantilly facility has experienced both highs and lows.

Between 2003 and 2005, Dulles' passenger traffic jumped from 17 to 27 million, with many people crediting its new low-fare airline, Independence Air. But Independence went out of business in January 2006, and Dulles, which had been its primary hub, reported four million fewer passengers at the end of that year than for 2005, a startling 15 percent drop.

Scrutiny by the general public can bedevil airlines as well. On February 14, the frozen tarmac at JFK International Airport in New York became debacle central as at least 10 JetBlue planes were grounded and some passengers forced to remain on board for 10 hours. Fallout from the incident inspired the apologetic corporation to create a "customer bill of rights."

Still, some CHO users are eager for a low-cost carrier. What are the chances?

"We don't have a sufficient passenger base for a low-cost service," says Hutchinson. Indeed, Judy Graham-Weaver of AirTran says that part of the business model for low-fare airlines is to focus on high population areas so they can always fill a lot of seats on big planes. AirTran flies only two kinds of planes, both of them jets with more than a hundred seats– or at least twice the size of the smaller jets and prop-jets typically seen at CHO.

And while AirTran's spokesperson wouldn't rule out one day serving a community like Charlottesville, for now CHO is left to touting its convenience.

A recent ad campaign asks, "Does flying on low-cost airlines from big airports make you feel like a sardine?" sternly warning potential spendthrifts, "With budget airlines, you get what you pay for."

But that's not all the Charlottesville-Airport Authority has been spending its money on. A $4.3 million rehabilitation of the passenger terminal was completed last year, and a $4.7 million extended runway safety area project that includes the relocation of Route 743 is scheduled to wrap in November. An additional $2.6 million round of improvements is slated for "general aviation," i.e. private planes: a new parking lot, a wash rack, and the extension of a taxiway with infrastructure for new hangars.

Down I-64, in addition to its new terminal, Richmond's Capital Area Airport Authority, basking in thrifty glory, has been working to attract more commercial business from far and wide. Although some marketing has been targeted to Charlottesville and Fredericksburg, Bell says the Richmond airport pretty much sells itself. 

"People are going to look at their travel options," he says. "At some point people say, 'It's worth it to make the trip.'" And with Bell boasting about how RIC has more on-site parking than Reagan National and I-64 being relatively empty compared with I-95 or I-66, some might find it hard to argue. 

RIC is only 80 miles down the road, and Dulles, though Yingling says they don't target consumers in the Charlottesville area, will always draw some local bargain hunters two hours north.

CHO's plateau in passenger traffic suggests that value may be taking precedence over comforts and proximity.

A July 31 search on a certain William Shatner-endorsed discount travel website paints a picture of contrasts: for an August 17-19 round trip to Atlanta, CHO fares (on Delta) started at $489, while AirTran flights started at $258 from RIC and $278 from Dulles.

For Hutchinson, the idea of persistent business rivals sharing the same territory is nothing new. "We have always had competition with Richmond and Dulles," she says. "I think that will always exist because of our size."

Yet stunted growth isn't something that keeps Hutchinson up at night. "What we have here isn't unlike other airports," she says. "We're looking for a healthy, sustainable plateau of business."



Being in a position where I'm traveling considerably more than ever before, I have completely abandoned CHO. The only things "convenient" about it are it's proximity to Charlottesville and the extremely friendly TSA staff. The fares are ridiculous, and unless you're going to one of the hubs you're looking at a 2 hour layover somewhere in most cases. And CHO is probably the only airport in America where the restaurant/gift shop can't be accessed from the security area. Bad decision, that one.

When you factor in the 90-minute drive to RIC and the sometimes massive savings it's a no-brainer. Let's see - sit in Atlanta for three hours or drive for 90 minutes with my wife...and save money?

But beware of flying Jet Blue out of Richmond. Whoever stood up in a Jet Blue board meeting and proclaimed "We shall make our hub at JFK, the second-most weather-delayed airport in America" should be made to sit on the tarmac in New Haven for four hours every day.

There is one other good thing about CHO. The United commuter flight to Dulles will absolutely renew your faith in God.

OK, the ground is flat, there is lots of land, and its not that expensive.

West end Richmond and Short Pump are huge, plus the new 288 road.

The ultimate: a mega airport just east of Zion Crossroads. It would steal most of CHO and RIC traffic and complete the missing link that would make all land between Short Pump and Zion Crossroads a city of its own.

What a great idea!

CHO would probably close though.

I travel from CHO every week. I love it. There are no lines, crowds, "people movers," long walks to the parking lot or the gates. The terminal is clean and all of the passengers are well behaved, too.

Of course my employer pays the fares and I would be very unhappy if I had to pay them. But I might, now that I am spoiled by this nice friendly CHO airport.

For years the RIC airport board has been ripping off the passengers with some of the highest fees in the nation (passed on to pax in fares.) Even nine years ago when RIC could have been the Mayberry airport - it was a shamble with no services whatsoever - the airport board was getting fat and rich. Just look at some of their houses. One of them is as big as CHO's terminal!

The "you get what you pay for" ad campaign has to be the most boneheaded marketing idea I've seen in awhile because, among other reasons, it's patently false. In fact, the ad campaign makes a great argument for not using CHO.
Let's see, for an average roundtrip of $700 from CHO to LGA, you get an oft-delayed, bumpy as hell '80s-relic Saab 340 turboprop piloted by Colgan's minimum-wage-earning, just out of high school pilots, while for a third of that amount flying RIC-LGA, you get a shorter flight on a more comfortable regional jet.
I hate JFK and won't fly JetBlue out of RIC for that reason, but if you were to fly that route (also costing a third of the CHO-LGA price) you'd get an even more comfortable seat, better snacks and a wide variety of entertainment options.
I would like to see Ms. Hutchinson fly the Saab 340 to New York then take JetBlue's Embraer 190 back to Virginia and then ask her which aircraft made her feel like a "sardine." Or better yet, go to Dulles and fly one of JetBlue's A320s or Southwest's 737s -- each of which have at least 34" seat pitches vs. the 30" offered by the Saab 340s -- and then ask her the same question.
I hope they're not paying anybody for this marketing wizardry.