Tar Heel Tattler - November 2005

Hickory's air service hasn't taken off yet
By Dail Willis

Here’s the story of two other Tar Heel airports in a nutshell: Kinston is getting the nut, and Hickory is getting the shell. Business travel makes the difference, and unless Hickory’s numbers improve, Delta might fly away.

The two cities illustrate how even subtle differences in market composition affect air service. Both had commercial service restored this spring, and Delta flies nonstop to Atlanta three times a day from both. However, while 70% to 80% of Kinston’s 120 to 150 seats per day are full, Hickory averages filling only 45% of its daily 120 seats.

Business travelers make up about half of Kinston’s passengers, according to Don Howard, director of airport operations. They account for fewer than 10% of Hickory’s travelers, director Tim Deike says.

That’s not all. Kinston’s airport, in a city of about 23,000, is surrounded by similar-sized competitors in Jacksonville, New Bern and Greenville. But those airports offer only turboprop service to US Airways’ Charlotte hub. The closest big airport is Raleigh-Durham International, about a two-hour drive. That plus traffic congestion and lines for parking, baggage and boarding at RDU discourage some travelers.

Hickory is bigger — nearly 39,000 residents — but Charlotte/ Douglas International Airport is less than an hour away by car. And US Airways has influence in Hickory. Before pulling out in April 2002, it awarded local businesses discounts in exchange for guaranteed minimum passenger loads, and some still use those discounts for flights out of Charlotte. That helps explain, Deike says, why the airport’s recent survey of Hickory fliers found 68% use the Charlotte airport and 25% drive to Greensboro.

Another difference between Hickory and Kinston may be that Kinston promotes its airport. Advocates attend civic-club meetings, urging members to use the airport. Private money and a grant bought billboard, radio and newspaper ads.

Now Hickory is under pressure from Delta to get its numbers up. The airline and the airport are working together on an advertising campaign aimed at local businesses. The subtext: Get on board, or get grounded.