Hagerstown Regional Airport’s new commercial carrier has a history of canceling flights that are not profitable, and once canceled a route before service got off the ground.
But airport officials said they are confident Allegiant will have the ridership it needs to keep it flying out of Hagerstown Regional Airport.
Allegiant Air on Sept. 17 announced plans to start twice-weekly nonstop flights between Hagerstown and Orlando Sanford International Airport in November.
The flights will end a yearlong absence of commercial service at the airport.
Allegiant Air is one of only two U.S. airline companies reporting profits this year (the other is Southwest). Allegiant officials attribute the company’s financial strength in part to its willingness to make changes when profits start to fall.
The company, which operates about 100 routes, has added more than 25 routes in the last year and has canceled at least six others.
“While cutting routes is obviously not something we enjoy doing, it’s also part of responsibly operating a business,” said Robert Ashcroft, vice president of planning for Allegiant.
Ashcroft said the company generally gives new routes at least six months to “prove themselves,” but has cut flights more aggressively in the last year as oil prices have soared.
The company recently canceled plans to fly between Marion, Ill., and Las Vegas before flights began.
Allegiant generally signs length-of-service contracts of one year or less for new flights and sometimes signs no time commitment at all.
The company has no length-of-service contract in Hagerstown, Allegiant Air spokeswoman Tyri Squyres said.
Allegiant likes to keep planes 90 percent full, on average, but will settle for 80 percent booking initially in Hagerstown, an airline official said at a press conference earlier this month.
At the same press conference, Greg Larsen, business development manager of Hagerstown Regional Airport, said the airport is confident that Hagerstown will meet the 80 percent goal.
The jets Allegiant is to fly into and out of the local airport beginning Nov. 14 have 150 seats.
“We are going into this believing that it is going to work,” Airport Director Carolyn S. Motz said Thursday.
Motz said the Hagerstown area has a market for an all-jet, direct-flight service to Orlando.
“We fit (Allegiant’s) mold perfectly. People in this area have long wanted service to Orlando,” she said. “We know this area will respond to this wonderful service.”
Motz said the airport is marketing the service and the airline is buying advertising.
Motz also said that the practice of cutting routes is not unique to Allegiant.
“There’s not one airline that hasn’t cut flights,” she said. “Not one.”
“It’s unfortunate that a story like this would get written before the airline has even arrived in Hagerstown,” Motz said. “If you look at the last year and a half at the record of airlines in general, how much service has been canceled? Here is an airline adding service in a lot of places.”
Ridership a priority
At Columbia Metropolitan Airport in Columbia, S.C., Allegiant canceled a daily flight to St. Petersburg, Fla., in February 2007 after two months.
While the flights were well-booked for the first few weeks, ridership dropped dramatically after that, said Lynne Douglas, the airport’s director of marketing.
“We weren’t filling planes,” said Douglas, who noted that the airport, which has contracts with several major carriers, is used primarily by business travelers and might not have been a good fit with Allegiant’s vacation-destination model.
Douglas said she never has worked with an airline that has left the airport as quickly as Allegiant.
Don Howard, operations director for Kinston (N.C.) Regional Jetport, said Allegiant had no problem filling planes there. Still, the company canceled flights between Kinston and Orlando Sanford earlier this year.
While the flights regularly were 90 percent full, Howard said passengers didn’t book enough rental cars and hotel rooms through Allegiant, which offers vacation packages with its flights.
Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Co., the parent company of Allegiant Air, offers air travel both on a stand-alone basis and bundled with hotel rooms, rental cars and other travel-related services, according to its Web site.
Allegiant finished a one-year contract at Kinston and gave about six weeks’ notice before leaving, Howard said.
Earlier this month, Allegiant cited rising fuel costs and “competitive influences” in its decision to cancel flights between Las Vegas and Lincoln, Neb.
John Wood, executive director of Lincoln Municipal Airport, said Lincoln’s proximity to Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Neb., about 50 miles away, was a factor in Allegiant’s decision.
“We lose a lot of air traffic to (Eppley Airfield),” Wood said.
Wood said Allegiant was “doing fine” until fuel prices began to climb. Allegiant raised ticket prices while Southwest Airlines, which flies out of Eppley, did not, he said.
Change of mind
Allegiant has reversed decisions to cancel service in the past after demand increased or competition decreased.
The company last week agreed to continue flying between Huntington, W.Va., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after having previously announced that the flights would be canceled.
Allegiant cited “community efforts, stronger than anticipated summer bookings and significant decreases in fuel costs” in the decision to continue the flights, according to a press release on Allegiant’s Web site.
“When the facts change, we’re not afraid to change our minds,” Ashcroft said in the release.
The company announced plans earlier this year to cancel a flight between Orlando and Piedmont-Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C.
One month before flights were scheduled to end, however, Allegiant announced it intended to continue the flights because another carrier at Piedmont-Triad was leaving.
Kevin Baker, assistant airport director at Piedmont-Triad, said those flight loads are “pretty high,” but said Allegiant since has canceled another flight between Greensboro and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“I think they’re pretty smart about the way they do business, actually,” Baker said. “They fly when there’s a demand and they don’t fly when there’s not a demand.”
Don Howard, the manager of Kinston airport, said Allegiant’s willingness to quickly cancel or add flights was unique in the past, but has become more common with other airlines in recent years.
“Even the legacy carriers can’t be counted on these days to spend three or four years building a customer base,” Howard said. “It’s not like it used to be.”
Kinston has had several carriers over the last eight years, including US Airways, American, Delta and Allegiant.
The airport now has no commercial carriers, but flies gambling charters to places including Gulfport, Miss., and Reno, Nev.
“We’re more of an industrial park, really,” Howard said. “We don’t generate a lot of revenue through commercial flights.”
Like every airport official interviewed for this story, Howard said he enjoyed working with Allegiant, calling its employees “really easy people to work with.”
John Wood, from Lincoln Municipal Airport in Nebraska, agreed.
“They’re a good airline to work with. Good people,” Wood said. “But they won’t hesitate to leave.”
Allegiant Air flights
Beginning Nov. 14, Allegiant Air is to offer nonstop flights between Hagerstown and Orlando on Mondays and Fridays.
The Orlando flights will land at Orlando-Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Fla., about 22 miles north of Orlando and about 43 miles from the Walt Disney World Resort.
The airport is about 43 miles from Daytona Beach, Fla.
Fares will start at $79 and will rise to $99 for flights booked after Oct. 8.
More information about Allegiant Air can be found at its Web site at www.allegiantair.com.