Some success, but low airfares out of Richmond remain at risk

HENRICO, VA (WWBT) – One day, low-cost airlines may take off and never come back to Richmond. That's the warning airport leaders have been spreading for more than a year. We wanted to know if their efforts to save low fares are working.

It's mid-day on a recent Wednesday. Ticket lines are short. People are moving. Almost nobody thinks about what it took, to get this way.

November 2010: Airport CEO Jon Mathiasen drops this, on local business leaders. "If we don't have competitive fares in our region...we're dead," he said at the time.

January 2011: An ominous warning from a expensive ad campaign. "Above your seats, you'll find a device which allows you to pay through the nose," the ad said.

And with that, an effort was born, promoting low cost carriers JetBlue and AirTran (which will soon become Southwest). It was called "Save Low Fares"; a diplomatic way of saying, "Use them, or lose them".

"That's the overtone of it. Because we really want to communicate to people what is it they have now," Mathiasen said last week.

A year after the campaign began, Mathiasen tells us his office has made the pitch at least 200 times.

"They are better today than they were a year ago. We still have work to do," he said, of the low-cost carriers.

Mathiasen said the low-cost airlines depend on business travelers, who pay a premium rate. But, last year, things took a dramatic turn when JetBlue canceled its service from Richmond to New York City's JFK airport.

"Financial companies who do a lot of business in New York are going, 'Jeez, This is unbelievable.'" Mathiasen said.

For example, if a Richmond-area company needed its people in New York tomorrow, available flights start at $739...quickly escalating above $800. We even spotted so-called "economy" seats for more than $2300.

"It isn't us just saying this could happen. This did happen, and look at the results," Mathiasen said.

At the University of Richmond, business professor George Hoffer watches the airline industry closely.

"I think the campaign has had a marginal, positive, influence," Hoffer said.

He says fewer carriers and less competition means the airport isn't kidding about the low-cost carrier concern.

"The point is, there's nobody to take their place, so it's absolutely critical," Hoffer said.

Back at the airport, a busy travel season will soon begin. Lines will be longer, and from a distance, the industry will be watching to see which counter travelers choose.

Hoffer ended our conversation with a prediction. He said he would be shocked if the low-cost carriers were not around next year. Both he and Mathiasen also told us AirTran/Southwest will likely consider expanding service next year, barring a sudden downturn in the economy.

RIC doesn't release numbers of passengers for specific airlines. But, through September of this year, overall passenger loads are down about 3% compared to last year, according to airport statistics.

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