Friday, January 20, 2017

Elite Airways scales back in Naples, but Vero Beach looking at expansion

When Elite Airways landed in Vero Beach about a year ago, its nonstop service to Newark was almost instantly declared a success. Across the state in Naples, however, Elite struggled almost from the get-go.

Now, as Vero officials are talking with Elite about adding destinations and flights and building an Elite hangar at the airport, Naples officials may terminate Elite's contract at Naples Municipal Airport and begin charging the Maine-based airline rent.

In December 2015, Elite began twice-weekly direct flights between Vero Beach Regional Airport and Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey. Frequency has grown to four times a week, with increased flights during holiday season and connections to Portland, Maine, and Long Island, New York.

About two months later, in February 2016, Elite began direct Newark flights from Naples. But unlike in Vero Beach, the Naples' flights were discontinued in June because of poor sales. A short-lived Naples-Vero Beach route also was discontinued because of low bookings. Elite plans to continue regular service next month with Monday and Friday flights from Naples to Melbourne International Airport, with connections to Portland and Long Island.


Vero's routes and its relationship with Elite remain unaffected by the airline's struggles in Naples, Elite officials have said. Elite President and CEO John  Pearsall, in fact, has called Vero Beach the airline's strongest market. Last month, Elite announced plans for Vero Beach flights to Asheville, North Carolina, and a limited schedule to Tallahassee.

"The Vero Beach service is doing very well, and we look forward to continuing to grow there," Elite spokeswoman Rebecca Ayers said. Pearsall declined comment about the airline's relationship with Naples.

The two beachside cities are similar in population, although Naples is larger. Each had studies showing overwhelming support for bringing commercial passenger flights back to their local airports.

Still, each city approached Elite's arrival differently.

In Vero Beach, officials saw Elite's flights as a way to bring visitors to Indian River County.

"We thought it was great from the beginning," said Allison McNeal, tourism director for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. "Making it easier (with direct flights) to travel to Vero Beach definitely helps."

Between October 2015 to October 2016,  Indian River County tourism increased about 6.4 percent, McNeal said, though cautioning not all of it could be attributed to Elite's arrival.

In Naples, critics questioned local demand for Elite flights, the Naples Daily News reported. Airport neighbors were concerned about potential noise. Naples City Council members and airport commissioners voiced concern they weren't consulted before the deal between Elite and the airport was finalized, the newspaper reported.

Outside forces may have contributed to Elite's success in Vero and struggles in Naples.

Elite may have underestimated the competition it would face in the Naples area, specifically other airlines' service to Newark. At Southwest Florida International Airport, about 30 minutes from Naples, ,  several airlines — including jetBlue, United and Delta — fly directly to the New York area.

By comparison, the nearest airport to Vero Beach with passenger flights is almost an hour away in Melbourne. Many Vero Beach residents use Orlando and Palm Beach international airports. Each is more than an hour away, and both charge for parking. Parking at Vero Beach Regional Airport is free.

Timing also favored Vero Beach.

Its Elite flights began in December while in Naples, Transportation Safety Administration security delays meant Elite's debut was delayed until February, well into the winter tourist season, to begin flying.


On Thursday, Naples Airport Authority commissioners discussed their contract with Elite, which promised commercial service to a major hub. Commissioners are considering terminating the agreement, possibly charging the airline rent at the airport and cutting off city subsidies. Naples Municipal Airport spent $50,000 in marketing Elite and waived about $24,000 in rent, the Naples Daily News reported earlier this month.

"This is not going well," Naples Airport Authority Vice Chairman Dick Evans said Thursday.

Naples airport Executive Director Chris Rozansky said at Thursday's meeting Elite  claimed lack of reservations for its flight cancellations. Some flights had less than two reservations, "which is dismal," he told airport commissioners. Rozansky was unavailable for comment. He told commissioners he was working with Elite and Naples Convention and Visitors Bureau officials to use tourism data to either find alternate destinations or develop a new plan for its service.

At the same time, officials of Elite and Vero Beach are discussing development of a maintenance hub. Talks are preliminary, Pearsall said last month, but construction of the hangar could begin as early as the summer. It would take two to three years to complete, and would provide hundreds of jobs, he said.

The airport has property available for an Elite hangar, which would be built to its specifications.

In December, Vero Beach City Council approved a three-year agreement allowing Elite to continue renting counter space at the airport. Elite pays $700 a month for the space, which allows passenger check-ins, according to city documents. The airport collects about $8,400 in licensing fees each year from Elite.

Once the airport records its 10,000th passenger, the expanded lease agreement would increase federal grants from about $150,000 annually to about $1 million, city documents state.


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