Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lehigh Valley International Airport (KABE) looks to offset loss of AirTran. Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Now that Lehigh Valley International Airport's flirtation with Southwest Airlines has ended, airport officials are turning to plan B.

That will include trying get existing airlines to add new routes and getting new airlines like Frontier and Spirit to move into LVIA, Airport General Manager Charles Everett said.

And they'll be looking to do it fast, because not only is Southwest not coming, the airport's largest discount flier, AirTran, will be departing Aug. 12.

"We'll be reaching out to carriers we think would be a good fit here. Spirit and Frontier will be among them," Everett said. "I expect to be able to backfill those lost seats before AirTran leaves."

When Southwest announced in 2010 that it was merging with AirTran Airways, LVIA officials saw it as a chance to lure the industry darling it had coveted for years. AirTran was already at LVIA, and all they had to do was convince Southwest to stay once the merger was complete. The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which governs the airport, spent months showering Southwest CEO Gary Kelly with quirky, Lehigh Valley-unique gifts, and even visited Texas to try to convince him to bring his airline to the Lehigh Valley.

Last week, Southwest announced it was staying at 22 airports but pulling AirTran from six others, including LVIA. The loss is no easy pill to swallow for an airport trying to figure out how it will pay off the remaining $16 million it owes for a court judgment against it for taking development property in the early 1990s.

Losing AirTran could mean losing more than 5,000 passengers who fly to Florida each month and more than $560,000 in annual fees the airline pays the airport. AirTran represented roughly 13 percent of passenger business at LVIA.

Perhaps more importantly, LVIA officials hoped the arrival of Southwest would open the airport to new routes to Georgia, Florida and the Midwest.

Despite Everett's assurance that the void can be filled, the loss already had authority board members pinching pennies for an uncertain future.

"Not only do we have massive payments [for the court judgment] coming up, but we're losing more than $500,000 in revenue," Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, an authority board member, said. "I think we need to keep that in mind."

Not all the news was negative. For one, the Florida market AirTran is vacating is also served by Allegiant Airlines at LVIA, and Everett said the remaining seven airlines at LVIA will be lobbied to add new routes.

Spirit and Frontier were identified as potential recruits because both are low-cost airlines similar to AirTran and Southwest, and both operate out of other airports managed by Virginia-based AvPorts Management, which is operating LVIA.

In addition, some authority board members believe the $5 billion expansion project at Philadelphia International Airport may provide LVIA an opportunity to steal some business. While the enhancements are designed to relieve congestion and avoid delays in Philadelphia, at least some of the costs will likely be passed on to the airlines using the airport. That added cost may cause some airlines to consider moving to LVIA — at least that's the hope.

"There may be some longer-term benefits to that," Everett said. "But right now, my number one priority is to mitigate any negative impact from losing AirTran."

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