Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Vero Beach Regional Airport (KVRB), Indian River County, Florida: Four months after launching flights here, Vero Beach becomes Elite Airways’ best market

VERO BEACH — Deidre Renehan might have been no more than a screen face to Ellie Carson were it not for Elite Airways landing at Vero Beach Regional Airport four months ago with direct flights to Newark, New Jersey.

Instead, 7-month-old Ellie, of New York City, has been able to visit Renehan, her grandmother, at Renehan's Vero Beach home at least once a month, thanks to the 2 ½-hour flight she takes here with her mom, Meghan Carson.

"We wouldn't be down here as often without this flight," said Carson, who has made four round-trips since December. "It's so convenient."

Renehan, who was among the 50 passengers on Elite's inaugural Vero-to-Newark flight on Dec. 10, has made four trips herself. Other family members also have made multiple trips to New York.

"We're here all the time," Renehan said. "It's the closest thing to a private airplane experience."

Maine-based Elite returned commercial flights to Vero Beach in December after almost 20 years with Sunday and Thursday direct flights to Newark Liberty International Airport. The 50-seat planes have been consistently more than 80 percent full, with most flights sold out. The airline in February added round-trips to Naples Municipal Airport. Elite temporarily added Monday and Friday flights to Newark in March. Those flights ended April 1.

"We have had a lot of demand for additional flights," said Elite Airways President John Pearsall. "They in turn have had a very high load factor."

In fact, the flights have developed their own following, with passengers such as the Carsons and Renehans becoming regular, repeat customers.

New Jersey resident Nevins McCann has flown Elite twice to visit his mother, Virginia McCann, in Vero Beach.

"I'll come more often because of this flight," he said.

In just four months, Vero Beach has become Elite's most successful market, Pearsall said. The community support of businesses clamoring to partner with the airline, and passengers booking reservations, has played a role in the airline's Vero Beach success, he said.

"It's been great. It's made all the difference in the world," he said. "It's worked out well."

Costa d'Este Beach Resort & Spa noticed customer demographics shifted this year to a more northeastern market, although it is unknown if that's because guests are using Elite to get to the Vero Beach beachside hotel, said Marketing Director Maggie O'Briant. In January, however, the hotel increased advertising in New York and New Jersey because of Elite's new presence here.

"We want to spread the word about Vero Beach in that market," O'Briant said.

The hotel is working with Elite to develop a travel package that would allow visitors to book a flight, car rental and hotel room with one click, she said. But the hotel also wants to work with Elite in bringing future residents to the Treasure Coast.

"We know people come down to Vero Beach and then stay," she said.

Pearsall also has plans for a long-term relationship with Vero Beach. By winter, Pearsall said, he hopes to expand Elite's Vero Beach schedule with flights four or five days a week to Newark and, possibly to other destinations.

While Vero Beach will never become a connection hub on its own, Pearsall said, there's market opportunity in the small airport. But he wants to keep the focus on direct flights.

"That's the key — nonstop flights," he said. Passengers like not having to change planes or walk through a large airport to get to their next flight, he said. Vero is the perfect airport for that business model, he said.

There's a five-minute wait to get through TSA security, no hassles at baggage claim, leather seats on the planes and there is free short- and long-term airport parking in Vero.

"It makes the trip so easy. It's like flying privately," said McCann.

This summer, when seasonal residents have returned north, could determine the sustainability of Vero Beach flights.

"We definitely want to be careful in the summer," Pearsall said. Few changes could be made to the airline's Vero flights, he said, but officials will be monitoring booking and repeat customers to see how the airline fares in the slower summer months.

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