Tar Heel Tattler - January 2007

Delta says dip causes it to take off from Kinston
By Arthur O. Murray

In Eastern North Carolina, Delta Air Lines giveth — sometimes in return for incentives — and Delta Air Lines taketh away. The Atlanta-based carrier began twice-daily flights to its home airport in early December from Albert J. Ellis Airport, near Jacksonville, and it’s ending twice-daily flights Jan. 5 from Kinston Regional Jetport.

On the surface, it’s easy to think that Jacksonville hijacked Kinston’s flights. Less than 50 miles separate the two airports, and Ellis sweetened the deal with a $750,000 revenue guarantee for the carrier’s first year there. It also agreed to spend $50,000 marketing Delta’s service.

Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin denies any connection, saying that service from Kinston hadn’t been profitable since it started in April 2005. The airport agreed to spend $220,000 to promote itself and thus Delta’s service, yet boardings had dipped to fewer than 1,700 in September — down more than 35% from the same month in 2005.

Delta’s departure leaves Kinston with no passenger service except charters and twice-weekly flights to Orlando, Fla., by Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air. “We were a little too close to Raleigh,” says Don Howard, the airport’s director of operations. “Even when we were putting people on the airplanes, they couldn’t make money with the fare structure. And when ticket prices went up, people would drive to Raleigh for the low-cost fares. U.S. 70 and JetBlue and AirTran were our competition.”

Ellis Airport Director Jerry Vickers says Delta announced that it was coming to Jacksonville more than a year ago, well before it dumped Kinston. Service was delayed, he says, when Delta entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2005. Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways Group already operates eight daily flights from Jacksonville to Charlotte and a weekly flight to Philadelphia. Delta likes the location because of nearby Camp Lejeune, home of more than 40,000 Marines and sailors.

Vickers doesn’t think his airport will have to pay Delta a dime, even though September passenger boardings there were down nearly 10% — to 6,706 — from 2005. He says the 2005 numbers were higher than normal and the Atlanta route should draw new passengers, not take them from US Airways.

US Airways’ proposed takeover of Delta could complicate things, but the deal isn’t a slam-dunk. US Airways says it’s mainly interested in cutting duplicate flights, which shouldn’t affect Jacksonville. Still, Vickers admits he’s nervous. “We would be safer if they continued to be two stand-alone airlines.”