Thursday, April 24, 2014

St. Augustine's airport ready for return of commercial travel with Frontier Airlines

The return of commercial airline travel is just about a week away for the Northeast Florida Regional Airport, and the final preparations are nearly complete.

Airport executive director Ed Wuellner said there have been a handful of issues to iron out since Frontier Airlines announced in February that it was going to operate three flights a week between St. Augustine and Trenton, N.J.

The first of those flights is scheduled for May 2.

While there have been a few minor surprises, Wuellner said everything that needed to be done has been or is in the process of being completed.

“That’s good to go; we’re on schedule,” Wuellner said. “All the feedback from airline itself has been extremely positive.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, tickets for Frontier’s first flight out of St. Augustine could still be had. A round-trip fare that returned a passenger back to St. Augustine on the next flight, May 5, could be purchased for as little as $169.70, including taxes but not including baggage fees.

In an email sent Wednesday, Frontier spokeswoman Kate O’Malley said the company was satisfied with the customer response so far.

“We are very excited to start service between St. Augustine and Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing, N.J.,” she said. “Bookings have been strong, in line with expectations.”

Among the work that has been done is the refurbishing of the terminal area that was used by Skybus until that company pulled out in April 2008.

The airport is also staffing part-time workers for the airline (at a cost) for positions like ticket counter clerks, baggage handlers and workers to move the gates and other duties required to load and unload the planes.

One of the most important tasks for the airport authority to complete is getting the airport “federalized” again. Airport security for commercial flights is done by federal agents, and the St. Augustine airport has to be certified to have passengers screened — like any other airport with airline traffic.

The final approval hasn’t been granted yet, but Wuellner said the process has been moving along well. He expects federalization well before the Frontier flights begin.

“They are in the final stages of that,” Wuellner said. “We have every indication they will be ready to go by startup.”

The airport also had to prepare a parking area for airline customers, and that should also be ready. Parking will be $2 per hour or $8 per day. There will also be a free waiting lot for those picking up passengers at the gate.

As for ground transportation, the airport has worked out agreements with Avis/Budget and Enterprise for on-site rentals and returns. The airport does own land with frontage to U.S. 1 that could be used as a car rental center if the demand materializes in the future.

Another issue Wuellner and airport staff had to figure out was staffing of fire rescue personnel.

At some point, Wuellner said the airport will have to come to an agreement on a contract with the county to provide fire rescue service. For now, he said, rescue personnel are to be paid on a per diem basis.

Because there are just three flights a week, rescue workers are only required to be on site for about four hours on the days of the flights. Wuellner is hoping Frontier will add more flights, so both sides are waiting before going through the process of negotiating a contract.

“It’s coming along,” Wuellner said of the overall preparations. “I don’t see any big issues that would prevent anything. As far as being ready, I think were going to be good to go.”