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Lower Blue Grass Airport fares expected

AirTran Airways could have a major impact on Lexington's Blue Grass Airport and the area it serves, especially when it comes to lower fares and increased passenger counts, says an official at an Ohio airport where the low-cost carrier is dominant.

"It is as monumental as anything that will ever happen in your community if they're successful," said Kristie Van Auken, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer for Akron-Canton Airport.

In October, AirTran and Blue Grass Airport officials announced that the carrier was coming to Lexington, starting in February with flights to two Florida destinations. A major marketing blitz, including billboards and radio spots, is in the works. Airport officials are looking into advertising that targets areas beyond the airport's regular service area.

If AirTran's Florida flights are successful, the low-cost carrier could decide to add flights from Lexington to its Atlanta hub, which connects to more than 50 cities. Blue Grass Airport officials really want that to happen.

The presence of AirTran at Blue Grass Airport, especially if AirTran flights to Atlanta are offered, would probably mean more competition among airlines that serve the airport and, thus, lower ticket prices overall, airport officials say. Fewer people would be turning to the Louisville and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airports because of lower air fares, they say.

Blue Grass Airport officials have done their part by getting AirTran to come to Lexington. Now it's up to the public to do its part by flying from Lexington to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., via AirTran, Van Auken says.

"It always works out that all the other airlines follow if a low-cost carrier is in the market," said Brian Ellestad, deputy director of air service and community relations at Blue Grass Airport. That's what happened when Chicago Express, flying under the ATA brand, was operating out of Blue Grass several years ago. But the airline declared bankruptcy in 2004, he said..

"Our average fare was less when they were in the market," Ellestad said. The average fare increased when they left, he said.

With 80 percent of their seats filled over a year's time, AirTran's Florida flights out of Lexington would save passengers about $4.3 million. The dollar figure is based on the difference between the average ticket price in the local market now and what AirTran will be charging passengers, Ellestad said.

AirTran will have one plane going to one or the other of the Florida cities each day, with one-way fares starting at $99. The jets seat 117 passengers.

Four daily flights from Lexington to Atlanta could save passengers as much as $47 million annually, according to a study that was done for the airport.

Service between Lexington and Atlanta is dominated by Delta.

"If the community supports the Florida service and we are successful in getting Atlanta service, that would definitely drive down prices," Ellestad said.

"When we come into an area or region or airport, we've done a lot of research in that market. We know coming in there's a need to be fulfilled," said AirTran spokeswoman Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas.

AirTran flights from Lexington to Atlanta are definitely a possibility, she said.

"We build from one route to another ... . We start out with one or two destinations. We build those and we add as we go."

Florida destinations are among the most popular for people flying out of Blue Grass Airport. Allegiant Air, a low-fare carrier catering to leisure travelers that began offering flights from Lexington to the Orlando and St. Petersburg/Clearwater areas in Florida in late 2008, has been flying at close to 90 percent of its seat capacity, El lestad said. He said he thinks AirTran and Allegiant will "complement each other very well."

Tinsley-Douglas said AirTran has already gotten a good response from its new Lexington market.

"We have so far been happy with the bookings we've gotten. We have a lot of strong support in Lexington. People are familiar with us already," she said.

"Airlines today are not increasing service, in fact, if anything, they're decreasing service," said Blue Grass Airport Board Chairman J. Robert Owens. "We're one of the few cities that have successfully recruited an airline this year."

He said every market that AirTran has been in has seen decreases in plane-ticket costs of other airlines that serve them.

The Airline Quality Rating study, a joint research project of St. Louis University and Wichita State University, rated AirTran as the best low-cost carrier for 2008 and 2009, Tinsley-Douglas noted. AirTran offers business class seating, wi-fi and complimentary XM satellite radio on every flight.

Founded in 1993 and headquartered in Orlando, AirTran offers more than 700 daily flights to about 67 destinations, and its offerings are continuing to grow. The airline is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's second largest carrier. Delta Air Lines is the largest there.

"I'm always interested in saving money," said Mary Twitty of Lexington, who was at Blue Grass Airport in mid-November, returning home from a trip to Montgomery, Ala. "If something's cheaper, I'm going to try it." She said she doesn't go to Florida often, but AirTran flights to Atlanta would be good for her — if they connect to her final destinations.

"In the past, I've always driven to Louisville or Cincinnati to get a ticket," said Curlene Morrison of Versailles, who was waiting with a friend who was catching a flight. She said she's already looked into AirTran's offerings for Lexington.

"You've always got to read the fine print," she said, referring to blackout dates and extra charges for things such as baggage. She said she might give AirTran a try in the spring or summer.

Kurt Rose of Lexington, who was headed to Florida, said he thinks Blue Grass Airport is pretty competitive.

"I've found it's sometimes cheaper to fly out of Lexington than Cincinnati or Louisville," he said. He said he also might consider flying with AirTran to Florida.

"AirTran is one of the most important carriers that's flying in the nation today," Van Auken said. "You cannot take them for granted. They owe the community nothing ... They commit to communities that commit to them; it's that simple."

She said that AirTran has 11 daily departures out of Akron-Canton Airport to seven non-stop destinations. The carrier moves about 60,000 people a month through the Ohio airport.

"No single carrier has had a bigger impact in the history of our airport than AirTran Airways," she said. "Because they are our business carrier, we have the lowest average airfare of any airport in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky combined. That's the AirTran effect. It can be absolutely transformative."

Bruce Carter, director of aviation at Quad City International Airport in Moline, Ill., said that fares, at least to some destinations, definitely decreased when AirTran came to town in 1997. AirTran operates three daily flights to Atlanta and four weekly flights to Orlando from the Illinois airport.

"It's not uncommon to see passengers from two to two-and-a-half hours away coming in to take advantage of the AirTran structure," he said.

That's what Blue Grass Airport officials are hoping will happen here.

"Blue Grass Airport serves as the primary airport for Central and Southeastern Kentucky. We will certainly promote AirTran's services to customers within that region and will also look to place advertising on the outskirts of our service area in hopes of capturing customers who may not have traveled with Blue Grass Airport in the past," said Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Eric Frankl.

In 2004, the last time the local airport was served by a low-cost carrier, passenger boardings were at an all-time high, with 582,115. Except for a small uptick in 2007, passenger boardings have decreased each year since then, Ellestad said.

"It's a good thing for Lexington to get AirTran in the door," Carter said.

He said airport officials across the country try hard to make the public aware when they've got low-cost carriers operating in their markets.

"If they leave, it's almost impossible to get one back," he said.