published Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Pulling the Chattanooga Airport out of its nosedive

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    The Chattanooga Airport terminal.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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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.

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gjuster said...

You can almost always trust government to waste taxpayer money on boondoggles. I try and fly out of CHA whenever it makes sense, however, that's less than half the time.

June 25, 2013 at 1:46 a.m.
nucanuck said...

It's all about demographics. There is no good economic reason to add direct flights from Chattanooga to major cities if they can't be filled. That's why the Hub system came into being. Even if Chattanooga had several hundred thousand more people in the metro area, that still would only make a marginal difference.

It's the curse of the non-Hub cities. I now live in a city of 300,000 plus, and to fly ninety miles to Seattle can often cost $300...about the same to Vancouver. Maybe Chattanoogans should look at it as I do in Victoria: it's worth a premium to live in a special place.

June 25, 2013 at 2:44 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Exactly, Greg. The mission of the Chattanooga Airport is not subsidizing private planes at Wilson Air.

June 25, 2013 at 7:15 a.m.
moon4kat said...

I'm sorry to read all this negativity about the Chattanooga Airport. Contrary to the editorial, we have found some great fares out of CHA. And, we love that airport. It's close, convenient and uncrowded. Admittedly, sometimes the fares are too high. But, not always. Sometimes we've found better fares from Chattanooga than elsewhere. It's definitely worth checking and comparing options. And, even if the fare is modestly higher, we'd much rather fly out of Chattanooga than make the long trek to either Nashville or Atlanta.

June 25, 2013 at 9:59 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Moon4kat When is truth negativity? Please continue to jump from one fluffy cloud to another, while singing Raindrops and Roses, and ignore real problems in local government. The Airport board reeks of conflicts of interest, as well.

June 25, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.
gypsylady said...

This is so Chattanooga. Instead of identifying the demographic realities and figuring outhow to generate a rethinking of the airport, they contract for a markrting campaign even though we are all aware that that building sitting off 153 is an airport. You need people on that board who are qualified and who are willing to grab ideas from successful, similar airports. This won't happen if they reappoint the same bunch. Kind of like hiring a hospitality company to increase usage of Erlanger. Sheeeesh.

June 25, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.
bushpilot07 said...

I'm not sure who the writer of this "editorial" is, but something that separates editorials from actual stories is that editorials don't have to have their facts checked. They can just print what they want with the appearance that it's actual facts with the hope that readers actually believe it.

Here's just a few FACTS that this person fails to explain.

Chattanooga's fares will generally always be higher than Atlanta's, with a few exceptions. (Fare sales, specials, promotions, etc.) It is what it is and almost any airport of this size that's in this close proximity to a hub airport is suffering the same problem.

He states: "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 airline industry is driven by market and need. If an airline can't make a profit in that market, they don't even consider going there. (Why would someone go into business knowing they're going to lose money?) Knowing this, you try to attract the potential travelers to use your existing carriers at your airport with....of all things.....wait for it......a marketing campaign.

The writer speaks of the condition of the airport and uses words such as "outdated", "disrepair", "dingy", "shabby", and "dirty". Why did the writer conveniently leave out the fact that the airport authority is currently spending 7.2 million to renovate the terminal? Oh, wait. That's something good the airport is doing and it would clash with all the "bad" things the airport is doing in his "editorial".

He states, "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."

This has been touched on repeatedly, and I'm sure it will keep coming up as long as they can use it to rattle the chains of the uninformed. (Maybe I should put it in all caps, so it will stand out.) THE FUNDS THE "WRITER" SPEAKS OF COME FROM SALES OF AVIATION FUEL AND NOT THE GENERAL TAX PAYER. The fact is, if you're not one of these so called "rich" people he speaks of, you've never spent a penny towards the building of this facility.

Dear Mr./Ms. Writer of this "Editorial", please stop the lazy journalism and treat the readers to facts. They pay for it. You owe it to them. Leave your hidden agenda at home.


June 25, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.
gypsylady said...

Does raising landing fees raise or lower ticket prices?

June 25, 2013 at 2:47 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Parking fees have also increased because of the Wilson Air losses.

June 25, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
gypsylady said...

Yes, marketin fixes all. Remember the Edsel?

June 25, 2013 at 3:25 p.m.
owtdoorguy said...

I can see valid points made by both sides but genuinely hope for a brighter future for the airport. Having recently moved from Atlanta, where we lived, worked, went to GA State in downtown and very much enjoyed the bustling airport, I can appreciate the short-non-existent security lines, the absence of traffic, and the fraction of the general public you have to navigate around... And interestingly enough, the last 5 flights I have taken from Lovell, connecting through Atlanta, have all been $100-$400 cheaper than out of Atlanta, which I thought was weird but awesome! I would be FOR any efforts to reengage the surrounding areas and empower residents to make use of its local airport. Maybe a few campaigns, fundraisers, social events, and marketing campaigns can help, but any real change in the identity of the airport will have to come from its patrons. Best of luck to all involved. I will continue to fly out of Lovell as often as possible.

June 25, 2013 at 9:30 p.m.
fairmon said...

Atlanta, GA.; Nashville, TN; Charlotte, NC are all hubs to the world. Why not several low fare daily flights to and from each? Perhaps it is time for the Chattanooga airport authority and the city counsel to review the role and objective of the airport. It is evident the Chattanooga airport is not and will not be a major player but could be a convenient low cost shuttle service center.

June 26, 2013 at 5:15 a.m.
BigRidgeGOP said...

@bushpilot07.... you may be correct in saying

"THE FUNDS THE "WRITER" SPEAKS OF COME FROM SALES OF AVIATION FUEL AND NOT THE GENERAL TAX PAYER. The fact is, if you're not one of these so called "rich" people he speaks of, you've never spent a penny towards the building of this facility."

But... the Airport Authority continues to lose money on the FBO (Wilson Air) that is taking local taxpayer money away from other, more important funding priorities at the airport. Case in point, the Airport Authority recently raised parking fees and rental rates to increase its budget to cover for these loses. So... YES, the general taxpayer is being affected by the Wilson Air decision.

It's time for local government to stop funding projects and initiatives that compete directly with private business, especially when these ventures are losing money year after year. I have yet to see how Wilson Air will become profitable unless TACAir decides to close its FPO operations. The ongoing losses at the Airport will only worsen in the coming years, especially when you consider the upcoming fee increases for Wilson Air to manage the FBO.

Me personally... I believe the Airport Authority should focus its resources on funding/supporting efforts that will make local travel more affordable or improving the airport so we have a better, more pleasant travel experience when flying out of Chattanooga. As it stands now, this standard is not being meet by any measure.

Last, if the Airport Authority continues down this path of competing with a private, taxpaying business... the taxpayer will lose again. Now, the Airport Authority wants to build a second hanger space that will use approximately $600,000 (possibly more) of local taxpayer funds to build something that the market does not support or need.

June 26, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.
Plato said...

made up facts? missing information? it must be one of "Drew's Screws" :)

June 26, 2013 at 8:43 p.m.
ERichards said...

The "TAX" on aviation fuel collected by the CMAA from both the private sector and the commercial airlines is what funded the construction of the Wilson Air Pork Project. Any fees accessed by a government agency are a "TAX". The Airport Authority and their PR Company can twist the money trail any way they want but the facts don't lie. Everyone who pays to park or buys fuel at the Chattanooga Airport is paying for this project. Chattanooga Airport also has the highest flowage fee of any other airport in the State of Tennessee. For comparison look to the Knoxville Airport where they just published a Request for Bid in regards to a second FBO and guess how many private companies responded. The answer is none. If the Knoxville airports tremendous air traffic can't attract interest in a second FBO then how do the brain trusts at the CMAA expect the math to work out here? If they want to continue to scream that it was because of growth and TAC Air’s high fuel prices and poor service then they should show a little proof as to where the complaints came from and how many of the new companies in town have flown to their failing operation. I think something the tax payers also don’t realize is that Wilson Air is just the name on the building and that the CMAA is actually bidding and seeking business. I would bet if someone checked that the employees at Wilson actually get a paycheck from the airport authority and not Wilson Air. The CMAA was told prior to jumping into this that it would not work but chose to move forward anyway. This entire scheme was a revenue seeking plan that will never work. Just my two cents worth………

June 27, 2013 at 9:52 a.m.
bushpilot07 said...

I always tell myself I won't get into trading posts with people because I believe in stating your point and moving on, but it seems like people keep stating their opinion or perception and stating it as fact, not as their opinion or perception. I can say that everything stated in my first post was fact.

In these posts, people have repeatedly stated that the reason the airport raised it's parking rates is to cover Wilson Air's shortfall. Are they stating this as fact, opinion, or perception?

I'm not going to say why the airport raised it's parking fees, because the truth is I don't know. But unlike some of the previous posters, I'm not going to state something as fact that's really only opinion. Maybe others should follow.

June 27, 2013 at 10:51 a.m.
ERichards said...

@Bushpilot07 here are your facts.

"Expenses over the next 12 months are slated to go up about 9 percent to $8.3 million versus the prior year, according to the airport. Helping drive expenses are the airport's solar farm, general aviation development and terminal work such as new carpets and renovating restrooms, officials said".

This statement was taken from the article referenced above.The Solar farm and terminal renovations are being completed with a small amount of local dollars supplemented with GRANTS, or tax payer dollars. The general aviation development is a industry term for the Wilson FBO. Guess what? It's the reason they are raising parking fees as well as others. That's a fact Jack!

Everything the CMAA does is available via Freedom of Information Request. The CMAA financial statements have been crunched for over 3 years and the facts show it is hemorrhaging money.

June 27, 2013 at 1:39 p.m.
Hunter_Bluff said...

You can fly out of Atlanta for less money but only if you value your time at $0 and only if you consider the use of your car is free. But if you value not spending 2 hours driving (except early in the morning or late in the day or at noon when gridlock will reign on the downtown "connector and the drive may be 3 hours". Make sure too the Braves aren't playing at the Ted, that it's not raining, a Friday, a convention in town etc.

Then park at $30/day and ride the shuttle in from the parking lot, then stand in a hopelessly organized security line, take an infinite escalator ride a clap trap "train" that is really just a bus. OR....go to CHA and park for $10/day, walk to the terminal, stand in security for 5-7 minutes and board. CHA's bigger issue is that it is at the mercy of Atlanta Airport's "air traffic flow control".

June 29, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.
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