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"Virginia Mayor floats ideas to get air service truly soaring"



Saturday, August 5, 2000

Mayor floats ideas to get air service truly soaring
Inexpensive, one-way flights to Washington a goal, he says
Better air service will make the airport more useful and aid the valley's
economic development initiatives, officials said.
By TODD JACKSON
The Roanoke (VA) Times


   Roanoke's oft-criticized air service must be improved, say the city's new
mayor and vice mayor, and they are are pushing ideas to help improve it.

    Mayor Ralph Smith said he thinks local leaders should find a way to
attract a major airline to provide a continuous, $99, one-way daily fare
from Roanoke to Washington, D.C.

    Smith, during a recent City Council retreat at Smith Mountain Lake, said
the $99 flight could make it affordable for people in the Roanoke Valley to
fly to Washington to get connector flights elsewhere. Smith also said lower
air fare could make it affordable for people to work high-paying jobs in
Washington while making their home in the Roanoke Valley.

    "That's what we want isn't it? " Smith asked another councilman. "People
building their big homes here in Roanoke and increasing our tax base."

    Many in the Roanoke area drive to the airport in Greensboro, N.C., to
fly because the fares there are so much lower than Roanoke's.

    Lyle Sumek, a North Carolina-based consultant who facilitated the
council retreat, flies all over the country to serve clients every year. He
said the valley's air service is poor.

    Smith and Vice Mayor Bill Carder took note of Sumek's opinion. They
believe there are ways for the Roanoke Regional Airport to become more
competitive.

    Better air service will make the airport more useful and aid the
valley's economic development initiatives by making it easier for people to
get in and out of the area, they said.

    Carder, general manager of Roanoke's Patrick Henry Hotel, said he often
drives to Greensboro to get flights even though he'd rather do business with
the Roanoke Airport. The savings are too substantial to pass up, he said.

    Roanoke's public airport could improve its service if local leaders took
a lesson from Eugene, Ore., Carder said. Eugene - a community with
demographics similar to Roanoke's - started a "travel bank" program last
year through a partnership between its municipally owned airport and the
Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce.

    The chamber sold local corporations and businesses on making an annual
commitment of funds for air service. The private sector agreed to deposit
$500,000 annually in the travel bank fund.

    America West airline then agreed to provide a low-cost fare for nonstop
service to Phoenix, a city that Eugene's business community needed better
access to. Several months later, Eugene used a second travel bank campaign
to lure another airline, Horizon, which provides nonstop service to Los
Angeles, said Terry Connolly, government affairs director for the Eugene
chamber.

    The funds are set up to guarantee profitability for the airlines. The
businesses put the money in and, as their employees travel, their flight
costs are deducted from the fund. Eugene's travel bank includes a commitment
from the Eugene Airport to support each new airline service for two years
with annual marketing budgets of $300,000.

    "The private sector here was receptive," Connolly said. "It demonstrated
the business community's desire to have better air service."

    Jackie Shuck, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Airport, is
familiar with Eugene's successful program, which has received nationwide
publicity.

    Shuck said a similar program could work in the Roanoke Valley, but she
said she thinks the business community, if it decides to make a commitment,
must specify a city for nonstop service from Roanoke.

    Shuck said New York City might be a possible place for Roanoke leaders
to start. The Roanoke Airport has no nonstop flights to New York, but does
have them to other major cities such as Washington and Atlanta.

    Shuck said the keys to the success of the Eugene program are the
financial commitment from the private sector and the commitment from
businesses to use a particular airline.

    The airlines agree to come to a midsized airport with the understanding
that a customer base will follow. Businesses lock their employees into
flights with those airlines on company travel, preventing them from going to
another airport to take advantage of frequent flier points.

    With a similar assurance in Roanoke, a travel bank program could work,
she said.

    But it will take time, she said.

    "It will not fix all of the service woes," Shuck said. "You have to take
it one city at a time."

    Carder is ready to begin the process.

    Smith recently appointed Carder chairman of the city Economic
Development Commission, a group that has met only a couple of the times in
the past few years. Carder said he plans to convene quarterly meetings, and
improving local air service will be one of the first items of business.

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