Search Continues for Airline Service
When the captains of industry set foot in the Moore County Airport terminal, they have arrived in a world-class community.
Hugh Bingham says that's the moment Moore County must put its best foot forward and make progress.
The problem is a lack of airline passenger service.
"This is a wonderful place," Bingham said. "This is a wonderful place to visit. Living here is even better. People come here from all areas. The diversity is far-reaching."
Bingham chairs the task force struggling to recruit reliable airline passenger service to the Moore County Airport. A senior vice president of First Bank, he is a member and treasurer of the Airport Authority.
He serves on the task force along with retired Gen. Bob Springer; Bill Smith; Chris Jordan; Caleb Miles, president and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Patrick Coughlin, president of the Chamber of Commerce; and Ray Ogden, executive director of Partners in Progress.
It is a tough time to be recruiting an airline, and Bingham is realistic enough to admit that he doesn't expect to land passenger service for at least a year. The United States is in the throes of a huge economic slump, airlines are in financial trouble, and the country has been plagued with security woes since the 9/11 attacks.
Despite these problems, the task force sees signs of hope and of life. Not all airlines approached about service in Moore County are giving the task force the cold shoulder. Some invite the group to stay in touch.
"We have a good market to sell," Bingham said. "The more people we tell about our area, the more interest there is. We have no illusions that this is an easy task."
Moore County has long had a population interested in travel and is a popular destination for corporate gatherings interested in trying out famous golf courses.
But now the area is gaining a new selling point: the expected impact of BRAC -- the Base Realignment and Closure Commission -- which will bring two major commands to Fort Bragg. That will draw thousands of newcomers and businesses to counties adjacent to Fort Bragg.
Moore County is likely to attract new residents as well as new businesses because of its golfing amenities and other cultural attractions, and many of these people will want to travel by air to Washington, D.C., New York and other centers of power.
"We live in a world-class community here," Bingham said. "It's known everywhere. Most comparable places have air service, and we don't."
Passenger service is more than an appealing amenity, as far as the task force is concerned. Its members regard a bustling airport as essential to the county's economic stability.
A study conducted several years ago showed that airport operations have an impact of at least $86 million a year on the local economy. And that's just the direct effect of day-to-day business operations. Up-to-date estimates on the indirect effect are not available, and there are no figures to show the induced effect, or the multiplier effect, in which each airline visitor's impact on the overall economy ripples across the economy.
Interest in an airline took a hit last year when Delta abruptly dropped its service to the Moore County Airport after little more than a year. The Airport Authority, the resort industry, local business leaders and residents had high hopes when Delta agreed to offer passenger service here in 2007. Then Delta pulled out.
The airline complained of a lack of passengers and said the county had not fulfilled its obligations. The authority complained that Delta did not offer adequate flight schedules and that ticket prices were too high.
"We had a good relationship with Delta, but it didn't work out," Bingham said.
He said the blame does not lie with Delta or with the community, but with a set of circumstances no one could control.
"It just didn't work," Bingham said.
For one thing, the Moore County Airport has runway limitations that prevented Delta from flying in larger planes that can accommodate more passengers. For the convenience of business travelers, an airline needs to offer early-morning and late-afternoon flights that enable them to visit, transact business and return in the same day. They need passenger service that allows them to make connections with other airlines to large cities on a daily basis.
US Airways was operating successfully here in 2001, when the 9/11 attacks plunged the nation into recession and generated expensive, time-consuming and unpopular but essential security measures. Burdened with economic strictures, the airline pulled out.
In peak season, US Airways was transporting more than 50,000 passengers a year from the Moore County Airport. Bingham says demand has increased since then, just as the county's population has grown.
US Airways left, then Delta. In the case of Delta, the authority had secured a state grant that eased the financial burden.
'Looking at Everything'
Where do we go from here?
That's the way Bingham describes the dilemma facing the task force, but instead of giving up, the members started looking for new airlines and expanded their field of interest.
Bingham said that many Moore County residents like to travel and the Airport Authority wants to attract them as well as the people who travel here on business or for golf and other leisure activities.
As a small airport, Moore County has advantages not available at large airports. The airport is nearby, parking is convenient and free, and passage through security is a relatively simple matter. If passengers must change planes in another airport, their luggage is checked on through and they are not required to endure the hassle of rush-hour security procedures in large airports. These conveniences should make up for any difference in ticket prices.
"We keep our information current," Bingham said. "We're reaching out to other airlines."
Since 9/11, more emphasis has been placed on private charter service and small jets that transport people directly to destinations. Some people are even flying four-passenger aircraft to make connections or to reach destinations, despite the high cost.
The task force may take a multi-faceted approach in which more than one type of passenger service is explored. Members are looking at charter planes and new entrepreneurs as well as airlines.
"We're looking at everything," Bingham says. "We're talking to airlines, and we will talk to more airlines."
'Tell Our Story'
In the past year, airlines have faced more than economic downturns. They have suffered from poor customer relations because of reduced services, higher prices, crowding, flight delays and cancellations. Airlines are flying fewer planes and carrying higher load capacities, something that leads to delays and discomfort.
Bingham, whose background includes running an airline based in North Carolina, thinks the airline industry will emerge from the slump and return to popularity.
"Today's airlines are not interested in taking risks," he said. "They're looking for passengers. The critical things are the right destination, the right service level and the right airplane."
Bingham said one of the first things industrial leaders ask about when they visit a community is airline service. It may not be the only factor, but it is a major consideration in decisions about opening a plant here or going elsewhere.
"Once they land here, minimum travel time to the golf course is 30 minutes," he said.
The task force is looking for the right package to provide the connectivity the community needs to make it work.
Bingham is not a native of Moore County, but he is a native of North Carolina, and he sees this community as unique. He says few communities offer its qualities and services. And in time, he believes the right airline will find Moore County.
Bingham said Moore County is blessed with smart people with the entrepreneurial spirit, and he believes airline service can be achieved. But he and other task force members also believe that this is the task of every resident of the county.
"You don't know what a chance encounter can mean," Bingham said. "That encounter could be with decision-makers, and this could be your opportunity to tell our story."
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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