Thursday, January 31, 2013

Moore County, North Carolina: Will Air Service Ever Fly Here?

The question still gets asked rather wistfully from time to time around these parts: Will regularly scheduled commercial airline passenger service ever return to Moore County?

 The best available answer appears to be: Don’t rule it out. But don’t be planning any vacations around it, either.

We were flying high there for a while – a very short while, as it turned out. Delta Air Lines provided scheduled service in and out of the Moore County Airport for only a little more than a year. It ended in November 2007, as the economy was heading into a tailspin and the airlines went into a spasm of cutbacks and consolidation.

Delta Subsidies Left a Bad Taste

As it now stands, things are locked in a kind of impasse. No airline is likely to come here unless doing so can be made profitable. But as things now stand, the only way that might work is for the county to subsidize the provision of air service in various ways, which current county officials seem dead-set against doing.

And no wonder. The county provided various kinds of subsidies, direct and indirect, to Delta last time around. And the general feeling is that the county ended up taking a bath. In the words of John Taws, of the Moore County Airport Authority, “There’s no denying that most carriers approach an airport with a hand out to a certain extent, looking for revenue guarantees. And that’s not palatable to us.”

Nor should it be. Budgets are too tight all the way around to get back into that losing game.

Airline service here is not going to be attractive enough to work unless it’s a regional carrier with multiple flights in and out – not necessarily every day, but at least on the busiest flying days. And fares will have to be competitive, or most people will continue to drive to Raleigh or Charlotte, pay a relatively modest parking fee, and take advantage of more reasonable fares and much more variety in terms of schedules and destinations.

Improvements Still Make Sense

If there’s any hope, it might lie with smaller planes and more frequent flights than have been the case in the past. The downside of that is that many travelers are less comfortable with smaller planes. The upside, besides the general convenience of being able to fly out of one’s home county, is that anytime there are fewer than 30 passengers, you don’t have to go through a TSA checkpoint – though you would still have to pass through one upon arrival in Raleigh or Charlotte.

The bottom line may be that regular passenger service anytime soon is simply not in the cards for a community with a population this relatively small, even though the presence of major recreational facilities here obviously generates far more in-and-out traffic than in most communities of comparable size. This will certainly become dramatically evident with the back-to-back U.S. Opens coming in 2014. But that burst in activity will clearly be the exception rather than the rule.

Meanwhile, it is good to see all the activity being carried out and planned to extend runways and improve passenger waiting areas. Modern, attractive airport facilities are still a major draw for air service, whether scheduled or not. And you never can tell – a miracle may yet happen.

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