Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Leaving Roanoke to find cheaper airfare

Cheaper airfare and a lack of variety for nonstop flights send Roanoke Valley travelers to other airports -- but does that really work?


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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Spotting out-of-towners is like a game for airport shuttle bus driver Gary Pitts. Circling the parking lot, he eyes the license plates and calls out the names of states as if he were entertaining himself on a long road trip.

"There's a Virginia. There's a Virginia." He points left, then right, the bus creeping along a row of cars in the long-term parking lot of Piedmont Triad International Airport. "Got another Virginia over here."

To him, this influx of Virginians is no surprise. For years, the Greensboro airport, which is about twice the size of Roanoke's regional airport, has stood as an inexpensive alternative for Roanoke Valley travelers seeking cheaper airfare and a better variety of nonstop flights.

But lately its hold on the low-fare market has begun to slip with competition closing in from larger airports to the east and south. For Roanoke, this could mean less leakage to the North Carolina airport. It could also fling Roanoke passengers farther in their attempts to save money on airfare.

Last year, about one-third of air travelers who bought plane tickets in and around the Roanoke Valley left town to catch their flights, a figure that has budged little in more than a decade, Roanoke airport officials say.

About 11 percent of the leakage traffic drifted down to Greensboro's Piedmont Triad International Airport, which operates 77 departures a day, a little more than twice as many flights as Roanoke's airport.

Others migrate to larger international airports, such as in Charlotte, N.C., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Washington, D.C., where discount airfares are plentiful and they can catch flights on fare-busters, such as JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines.

The majority of them are dollar-conscious leisure travelers with more flexibility in their schedules -- people like 59-year-old Roanoke County resident Margaret Walker, who has lived in the valley for nine years and says she's never flown out of Roanoke Regional Airport.

Ideally, Walker says, she'd rather skip the two- to three-hour drive to Greensboro or Raleigh-Durham -- a trip she often makes to visit her children in Texas and Cleveland. But the hassles of crowded hubs and multihour layovers are just too much to bear. Price is also a factor, and Walker said she adamantly believes fares are vastly cheaper at airports in North Carolina.

"Even considering the price of gas, it's cheaper," Walker said.

All of this is nothing new to Jacqueline Shuck, the executive director for Roanoke Regional Airport, who frequently fields complaints from Roanokers bemoaning the state of air travel in Southwest Virginia. The airport often finds itself in the tricky position of trying to match the wants of the passengers with the whims of the airlines.

"A lot of people don't understand. It isn't a field of dreams," Shuck said about the airline business. "It's not 'bring in the airlines and we'll fill them with passengers.' "

Airlines go where they find passengers, she added, and when passengers leave Roanoke, so does the incentive for mainline carriers, such as US Airways and Delta, to increase their air service.

Their decisions are also directly related to population density, Shuck added. And Roanoke, with a population of about 500,000 in a 60-mile radius surrounding the airport, is in many ways a victim of its own size.

"I don't think people understand just how big Greensboro is," Shuck said. It draws from three major localities -- Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point -- and 22 counties, with a total population of 1.8 million, including several along the Virginia-North Carolina border.

To be sure, other forces are at play when it comes to ticket prices, such as Roanoke's lack of competition from one of the major low-fare carriers.

Airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest Airlines typically act like anchors pulling down airfares in surrounding markets. The farther away an airport is from a discount carrier, the less pressure airlines feel to match their prices, said Tim Sieber, an aviation consultant for Evergreen, Colo.-based The Boyd Group.

Even now, Greensboro's standing as the cheap alternative to Roanoke's regional airport has begun to wobble. Greensboro's airport experienced a major blow when AirTran Airways pulled out in 2004, and then took another hit earlier this year when the short-lived discount carrier Independence Air filed for bankruptcy.

Whereas Greensboro used to draw passengers from Charlotte, an airport that saw close to 28 million passengers in 2005, it now leaks about 42 percent of its passengers to other airports, including about 18 percent to Charlotte, said the airport's executive director, Ted Johnson. The airport even loses 1 percent to Roanoke.

Airfares out of Greensboro have also increased again as some of the mainline carriers try to recover lost profits. Greensboro had the nation's second-highest airfare increase from the first quarter of 2005 to the same quarter in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and at one point, flights to Atlanta were as high as $1,000 round trip, Johnson said.

Charlotte, by comparison, had one of the nation's smallest fare increases during the same period.

That's not to say discount plane tickets can't be found out of Roanoke. There are just fewer of them to go around in smaller markets, and they get snatched up faster. For instance, if an airline runs a sale where 1 percent of its seats sell at a discount price, that may be only one seat in Roanoke, whereas you might get four or five in Greensboro, airport spokeswoman Sherry Wallace said.

Fares are also constantly fluctuating, in some cases, at a frequency of 250,000 changes in one day for a given airline's pricing system, she added. The actual price for one seat can shift multiple times in one day.

In this ever-shuffling landscape of airfares, deals can certainly be found out of Roanoke. That's why Shuck often urges local flyers to at least take a look at airfares out of Roanoke, rather than immediately disregard them as too costly. It could help the airport demonstrate to airlines the extent of the demand.

Still, for some valley travelers who remain fiercely loyal to taking flights out of larger airports, that buy-local rhetoric doesn't exactly fly.

"I don't think there is much I can do as an individual to change the airlines, other than me paying double for my tickets," said Marshall Kanner, a 58-year-old Roanoke County resident who exclusively flies Southwest Airlines out of Raleigh-Durham.

One chance of fares coming down in Roanoke hinges in part on its main competitor, Greensboro, attracting another low-fare carrier to its gates.

But so far, Johnson said, there are no immediate plans to bring the likes of Southwest Airlines to Greensboro.

Some airline analysts say that even Greensboro may be on the brink of being too small for some low-fare carriers, making Roanoke's chance of landing one even slimmer.

"The way the system is structured now, low-fare carriers do not work in smaller communities," Wallace said. They have to fill eight to 10 large planes going to the same city every day to make a route profitable.

"There are not enough humans in this part of the world to do that," she said.

But business models change, Wallace said, and a new generation of regional jets, such as JetBlue's new 50-seat aircraft, may someday make flying to Roanoke economically feasible for major discount carriers.

Increasing the number of airlines servicing Roanoke can also help drive prices down. So can persuading the four existing airlines to increase their seat capacity out of Roanoke, a goal airport officials are constantly working toward.

But Wallace also understands the rationale behind driving elsewhere to save on fares.

Traditionally the industry rule of thumb, she said, has been that if a passenger has to drive more than an hour away, it's only a deal if the savings in airfare is $100 or more. Multiply those savings by four family members, though, and the drive can seem much more attractive.

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