Blue Grass Airport adds service to Philadelphia, holds its own against industry trends

cgross@herald-leader.comJune 13, 2014 

As small commercial airports nationwide face the consequences of airline mergers and dropped flights, Blue Grass Airport has managed to maintain its number of passengers.

Through the addition of a direct flight to Philadelphia on June 5 and an increase in Florida destinations year-round, Blue Grass has filled gaps created by changes in the airline industry.

Eric Frankl, executive director of the airport, said he thinks Blue Grass is thriving — especially for an airport its size.

"This is all about opportunity and finding the best combination (of flights) for the area," he said.

US Airways recently added a daily Philadelphia flight, giving the airport 15 direct destinations. Frankl said administration at the airport had worked to obtain the Philadelphia flight for at least a year because local business owners and residents consistently brought the need for it to his attention.

Not only do Lexington residents want to go to Philadelphia, but VisitLex receives frequent information requests from Pennsylvanians. Philadelphia is among the top 10 requested cities at the visitors center, spokeswoman Niki Heichelbech said.

"The Northeast is a great feeder market for travel and tourism in Lexington's Bluegrass region," Heichelbech said.

Steve Pruitt, senior finance administrator at Mapi Group in Lexington, said Mapi Group has clients and a new office in Philadelphia, and it needs the single-connection convenience when international clients come to Lexington.

"This helps keep the company in Lexington," Pruitt said. "If we hadn't gotten the (Philadelphia) flights, I don't know where we would be five years from now."

Frankl knows how much can change in five years.

In 2009, AirTran Airways started flights from Lexington to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When Southwest Airlines acquired the airline in 2012, AirTran service was discontinued at Blue Grass.

In 2008, the airport saw similar results with the merger of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, ending service to Cincinnati and Memphis. The airport also lost service to Newark, N.J., and Cleveland in recent years.

But Allegiant Air began serving Lexington in late 2008 with cheap, direct flights to Orlando-Sanford International Airport and Tampa Bay. Since then, Allegiant began flying to Orlando International and added three other destinations from Lexington.

The other airlines serving Lexington are American, Delta, United and US Airways. American and US Airways are merging, and that could affect service in Lexington and elsewhere.

Allegiant makes up 20 percent of the market share, according to airport officials. Frankl said the region, not just Lexington, has responded to Allegiant's low prices and unique destinations. The number of passengers flying out of Lexington has remained more than 500,000 a year, primarily because Allegiant has added service while some other airlines have cut back.

Frankl said the region is looking for the Florida and seasonal flights, with one-way fares as low as $60. He said Allegiant will continue to grow as long as the price is right and demand is high.

Allegiant's retention of passenger levels is likely to be essential to growth at the airport, Frankl said.

With medium-size airports Louisville and Cincinnati nearby, Blue Grass competes with sometimes lower fares and a wider choice of direct flights.

Patty Brothy, director of travel management services at the University of Kentucky, said 97 percent of flights scheduled for UK are out of Blue Grass. The rest fly out of Louisville and Cincinnati.

Brothy said UK buys 13,000 tickets annually from airlines flying out of Blue Grass.

Frankl said his goal for now is to retain the flights and passenger numbers at Blue Grass.

He said a particular change in the airline industry has the potential to hurt the airport.

"If the 50-seat regional jet ceases to exist, that'll hurt our community," Frankl said.

Delta, which held 42 percent of Blue Grass Airport's market share in 2013, has added larger jets to its service while eliminating 50-seat regional jets across the country.

The smaller jets have provided much of the service from small airports to larger airports, including Atlanta, Chicago and Charlotte N.C., that serve as airline hubs.

Delta and other airlines cite fuel costs as the main reason for discontinuing the regional jets.

Frankl estimated that 70 to 75 percent of the airport's daily flights are on 50-seat jets.

Despite potential for change at the airport, Commerce Lexington president Bob Quick said he's optimistic.

"I think our market will have considerable expansion," Quick said. "We're doing well, and I think we'll continue seeing growth in the Lexington market."

With a growing number of business travelers, Quick said, he expects demand to increase at Blue Grass.

Frankl agreed and said the airport is crucial to Lexington.

Said Frankl: "Having air service is incredibly important to the economic viability of the community."

Lexy Gross: (859) 231-3335. Twitter: @lexygross.

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