Air Service Prepares To Resume
The inaugural season of Delta Air Lines' service to Moore County in 2006 was successful, but the usage must climb this year if the area wants to keep it, local leaders say.
About 60 percent of the seats were filled on the once-daily flight, according to Ron Maness, executive director of the Moore County Airport and a member of an airline task force that recruited Delta and helps promote the service.
"That load factor (60 percent) is not where it should be," Maness said. "We are confident that it will increase this year."
The seasonal service will resume March 14 and continue through Nov. 12, offering round-trip flights to Delta's flagship hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Local leaders say a more favorable afternoon flight schedule and the fact that two major golf events will take place in the area this summer -- the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles and the U.S. Kids Golf Championship -- should help boost the numbers.
To kick off the service this year, Delta has announced special low-introductory fares for travel to and from Moore County between March 14 and May 24.
Sample one-way introductory airfares, based on a round-trip purchase, include Atlanta, $119; Boston, $129; Chicago (O'Hare), $129; Tampa, $129; Dallas, $139; and Los Angeles, $149. Additional taxes, fees and restrictions apply. Fares are available only on delta.com or from a travel agent. Tickets must be purchased by March 5.
Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines will operate the service between Atlanta and Moore County, using 40-seat Canadian Regional jets that are configured with two-by-two seating with no middle seats.
It will operate initially five days week, excluding Tuesdays and Saturdays. Starting in May, a Tuesday flight will be added. During the peak summer travel period, flights will be offered seven days a week.
The flight from Atlanta will depart at 2:45 p.m. and arrive at the Moore County Airport at 3:57 p.m. The flight will depart Moore County at 4:25 and arrive in Atlanta at 5:43 p.m.
One of the big changes that business and tourism leaders pushed for this year was switching from a morning to an afternoon flight schedule.
The morning schedule last year proved inconvenient for many travelers, according to Miles and Maness. The early departure time required passengers either to catch a red-eye flight or to spend the night in Atlanta to catch the plane to Moore County.
"The afternoon departure gives passengers more options to connect," Maness said. "We think that will really help."
Many local travelers also complained last year that it was difficult to find good prices for the Moore County flights on Delta's Web site, delta.com. Maness said the airline has been good to work with the airport to improve that process.
"I don't think all of our problems have been solved, but I think it's better," Maness said. "They continue to work with us. The fare structure is more in line with what it needs to be. It shouldn't be $400 more than Raleigh, for example. But there is a premium for that convenience.
"There will always be challenges. Each time we identify problems, Delta has been good to address them. I'm grateful for the amount of attention and time they give us, given our market size. Delta moves 250,000 people a day. At most, we move 80. Here they are in the throes of bankruptcy reorganization, and yet they are still willing to work with us. Delta sees the commitment of this community. Delta is a good partner."
Maness encourages local residents to contact Delta ticket agents at the Moore County Airport. The agents are employees of the local airport as well, he said. The telephone number for the Delta ticket counter at the airport is 692-7644, though it has limited hours. The main number for the airport is 692-3212.
Caleb Miles, president and CEO of the area's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he is optimistic that things will go smoother during this second phase of service "now that we've been through this before." He said there is a concern with having the service cease in mid-November and resume in March. That requires reminding local residents that the service is available.
"We don't want folks to forget about it," he said.
But he said there may be an advantage to the slight break.
"It gives you time to step back, catch your breath and evaluate," he said.
Boosting Inbound Numbers
The service recorded 2,992 outbound passengers and 2,778 inbound passengers last year. Those numbers were opposite what Delta expected, according to Miles, who is also a member of the airline task force.
The Atlanta-based carrier viewed the area as a "destination" market because of its large tourism industry, meaning there would be a higher number of inbound passengers using the service, Miles said.
Maness and Miles said the county will put more emphasis this year on increasing the number of inbound passengers -- those coming from outside the area, such as tourists.
The new service faced a number of challenges last year, including the quick startup, with little time for advanced marketing.
"It took a while for the awareness to build," Maness said. "We were pretty comfortable that local residents would support the service. A majority of the traffic originated here."
Delta announced last March that it would provide once-daily nonstop service from Moore County to its largest hub in Atlanta on a seasonal, trial basis from June 14 through Nov. 13, 2006, and from March 14 to Nov. 12, 2007.
The challenge this year, Miles and Maness said, is to continue the strong use by local residents and increase the number of inbound passengers through marketing efforts outside the area.
"We've got to get the right mix of passengers," Miles said. "In a resort area, these were respectable numbers, but the yield per seat isn't high enough. We are having to shift our emphasis to business coming into the area. We have some marketing dollars available. When you spend them in Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago, the dollars go pretty fast. We need to piggyback with Delta to leverage it."
Delta's Sky Magazine will feature an insert on the Pinehurst-Southern Pines area in April, exposing Moore County to nearly five million fliers, Miles said. The magazine is on all Delta flights.
"It is another feather in our cap," Maness said.
The insert includes local advertisers.
"It is crucial in making this happen," he added.
Maness said Delta will hold a large reception at Atlanta National Club on March 24. Representatives of Pinehurst Resort will be there "to build awareness of the area," Maness said.
Delta is allowing the area to set up a golf display with a putting green at one of the gates in its concourse at the Atlanta International Airport from March 26 through April 8, during the time of the NCAA Men's Final Four basketball tournament in Atlanta and the start of the Masters golf tournament.
"This will really help in getting the Southern Pines-Pinehurst and Moore County message out there that this service exists," Maness said. "We will continue to explore avenues and options for local properties to capitalize on this service."
Maness is quick to point out that this doesn't mean use of the service by local residents is not important. He said that is crucial to the overall success of the service in terms of making it profitable for Delta.
Maness and Miles said they continue to speak to local civic clubs and organizations to promote the service.
"It is crucial to have local support," Miles added.
'Key Advantage' for Area
Moore County was part of a consortium of six airports that received a $1.2 million federal grant to help with either establishing or increasing air service. Moore County had lacked a commercial airline since April 2002, when US Airways Express halted round-trip service to Charlotte in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which worsened an already ailing economy.
The funds helped cover some of the startup cost, such as purchasing equipment. The airport also hired the ticket agents for the service, to cut down on the overhead cost for Delta.
"It was really an accomplishment getting air service for the area," Maness said.
He credits the success of the service to the airline task force, the Airport Authority, the county commissioners, local businesses and local residents.
He said the ultimate goal is to have service 365 days a year with two flights a day.
"We need to help Delta realize the power the Pinehurst name brings to the table," he said. "This has been an educational process, to help Delta understand this market."
Miles said another factor that bodes well for the future of the air service is the expected expansion of Fort Bragg as a result of BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) recommendations that will add two major commands and bring thousands of new residents and related military business to the surrounding counties.
"A lot of these folks will want to live here," Maness said.
"The Fayetteville airport can't accommodate all this business," Miles said. "BRAC offers a lot of opportunities for us. That won't happen until at least 2008, but hopefully Delta will take that into consideration as it continues to evaluate the potential growth in this market."
Maness added, "We've got a lot going for us, marketing-wise."
But regardless, the usage will have to go up this year to guarantee that the service will continue in the future, Miles and Maness said.
"At some point and time, (Delta) is going to look at us and say, 'Is this line making money for us?' They are going to ask, 'Will this market sustain itself on a profitable basis?'"
Miles said it is important to stress that air service does not benefit only passengers who use it.
"It affects everyone," he said. "It is an important economic development tool for the area. It brings new business to the area. It is a key advantage for the area. We don't want to lose it."
David Sinclair can be reached at 693-2462 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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