Sunday, November 15, 2015

Savannah's air service portfolio growing: JetBlue, Allegiant, Sun Country have options up, fares down

With six new leisure routes in less than two years, Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is just beginning to tap its potential for inbound growth as a destination city, the airport’s air service consultant told the airport commission at its November meeting.

“While the legacy airlines continue to remain satisfied with the market, JetBlue has played a critical role in keeping fares in check,” Brad DiFiore of AilevonPacific Aviation Consulting said in his report to the board.

DiFiore pointed to growth in the number of available passenger seats — which has outpaced most other airports its size – and a new emphasis on Savannah as a destination market as major factors in the airport’s resurgence.

Fares have also come down, with today’s averages a far cry from just two years ago when Savannah had the dubious distinction of placing in the top five on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s list of airports with the highest fares.

“Before JetBlue announced it was coming into the Savannah/Hilton Head market, traffic was flat and fares were rising,” DiFiore said. “Savannah fares are extremely competitive now.”

A quick check of direct flight fares from Savannah, Jacksonville and Charleston indicates Savannah is now cheaper to New York City’s JFK and La Guardia, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia and Charlotte.

There is little doubt the turnaround started with JetBlue, said Lori Lynah, the airport’s director of marketing and air service development.

“In fact, in the second quarter of last year — the first full quarter of JetBlue service – Savannah’s fares fell 13.7 percent, dropping us from the fifth most expensive of the 100 metro airports rated to the 25th most expensive,” she said.

“It was a clear indication of the difference having a low-cost carrier makes, especially one as popular as JetBlue,” Lynah said.

The ripple effect began months before the low-cost carrier actually arrived in February and in more than JetBlue’s announced destinations. In anticipation, Delta, United and U.S. Airways added to their Savannah service, giving passengers the weekly option of 45 more flights and 5,000 additional seats.

Once JetBlue actually started service to Savannah from New York’s JFK International and Boston’s Logan International, Savannah fares began dropping as other airlines scrambled to compete.

“One of the most important aspects of having a carrier like JetBlue is that its presence tends to lower fares across the board, not just in the New York and Boston markets,” Lynah said. “Delta still holds huge share of the Savannah market, but their fares are more competitive now.”

A destination market

While JetBlue’s low-cost fares and popularity as a “fun-to-fly” airline gave Savannah a new dimension in air travel, the addition of Allegiant Air promoting the area as a fly-in destination was even more popular than anyone anticipated.

A U.S. domestic low-cost carrier based in Las Vegas, Allegiant announced in February that it would begin spring and summer service this year to Savannah/Hilton Head from three Ohio cities — Akron/Canton, Columbus and Cincinnati.

It would take almost no time for the numbers to validate Allegiant’s decision, DiFiore said.

Planes were full, especially on the Cincinnati to Savannah route, prompting the airline to extend dates of service twice already.

“We’re pleased to say that Ohio travelers have embraced Savannah and Hilton Head Island as a destination and are taking advantage of our low-cost, nonstop flights,” said Allegiant public relations specialist Stephanie Pilecki.

“We aim for a 90 percent load factor on all our flights nationwide, and our Ohio routes to SAV have exceeded our expectations.”

The airport is hoping for an announcement from Allegiant on new and/or expanded service to Savannah, Lynah said last week, adding that the news could come at any time.

Allegiant’s success in Savannah was not lost on Sun Country Airlines, a destination carrier based in Minneapolis/St. Paul that began in late August adding seasonal nonstop service from its Twin Cities hub to Savannah.

Problem solved

But Sun Country’s story is a bit different, DiFiore said.

“They are a small, privately owned airline that doesn’t even try to compete with the big boys,” he said. “Instead, they have found their niche with destination routes and charter flights.”

“We went up to Minneapolis to talk with them and learned they wanted to base an airplane somewhere in the Southeast in the fall because they do a lot of football charters down here, but everything they looked at was too expensive,” he said.

DiFiore and Lynah suggested the airline consider bringing a plane down to Savannah on Thursdays, but instead of flying it empty offering it as a destination getaway for residents of the Twin Cities.

“They liked the idea,” he said. “So they began flying to Savannah on Thursdays, doing their charter on Friday and Saturday and flying home on Sundays.

“And a funny thing happened – they found themselves flying full or nearly full planes down here and back every weekend.

“Now, Sun Country is so confident in Savannah as a destination city, they are adding service in the spring – with no charter backstop,” DiFiore said.

“JetBlue has opened the door for us in a big way.”

So, what’s next?

Lynah and DiFiore told the airport board they have three priorities:

• Build the Allegiant franchise with more frequency and more markets;

• Find solutions for the Washington, D.C., and south Florida markets;

• Grow capacity in key existing markets.

“There are a lot of people in this country who are vaguely familiar with Savannah but have never visited,” DiFiore said. “We know from experience that most people, once they visit, fall in love with the area.

“It’s our job to find ways to get them here.”

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