‘A matter of time’ before air service returns to Delaware
In the past two decades, four airlines have come and gone from Wilmington Airport. Together, these airlines ran scheduled passenger air service for about four of the last 20 years.
The mercurial nature of this service is hardly unique to Wilmington; dozens of cities of its size have lost air service over the last five years as airlines consolidated in larger airports.
Wilmington Airport lost its most recent airline, Frontier, in 2015. Since then, Delaware has been the only state without regular passenger air service, but airport administrators say other airlines have recently indicated an interest in coming to the First State.
Stephen D. Williams, deputy executive director of the Delaware River & Bay Authority, says he continues to pitch airlines on the virtues of Wilmington Airport and its customer base. “My goal is sustainable air service for Delaware,” he said.
That means using data and industry trends to make the business case to airlines that Wilmington can draw from a wide enough pool of potential flyers to sustain regular service.
That could mean flights from Wilmington to an airline’s hub city — as Delta did when it offered a Wilmington-to-Atlanta route for 14 months in the mid-2000s — or flights to a leisure destination. These fun-seeking flyers filled Frontier’s flights between Wilmington and Florida from 2013 to 2015. Active-duty military personnel based in Dover represent another potential pool of flyers.
Any of these potential business or leisure flights could make a profitable niche for an airline, though their planning process to start a new route can take three to five years, says Douglas C. Bañez, managing director at Hubpoint Strategic Advisors. He is a Delaware-born air service consultant who works for the authority.
Though it is impossible to make a promise, he believes passenger air service returning to Wilmington within five years is a realistic goal.
But even as it has lost and gained passenger service, Wilmington Airport has become self-sustaining since the authority took on a 30-year lease from New Castle County in 1995. Cargo traffic, hangar fees, landing fees, land leases and other revenue have allowed the authority to break even at the airport.
The authority operates four other airports, too, but the income it collects for all five is dwarfed by bridge tolls. Only about 5% of its operating revenue comes from airports.
While air service may not be necessary to make Wilmington Airport self-sustaining, it could dramatically increase the size of federal grants and create new jobs. It also has a less tangible benefit: hometown pride.
Air service is a little like a pro sports team in this way, Williams says, in that it appeals to the part of us that wants to support and identify with a Delaware institution.
“The thousands of people who drive by the airport should get a chance to use it,” he says.
Why air service is fleeting here
Passenger air service in Wilmington has seen an on-and-off cycle dictated by the airlines’ changing business interests and fortunes. It’s the same story for many airports.
The last major carrier to fly out of Wilmington, Frontier Airlines, started the service in 2013. It was successful, Williams says, as its planes were about 85 percent full on most of its flights out of Wilmington.
But Frontier had a change in ownership that resulted in a shift toward larger airports, Williams said. The service was ultimately in place for only 22 months, but it provided evidence that air service can work here.
One of the reasons why it’s been difficult to sustain passenger air service in Delaware is obvious to someone with a map, said David J. Bentley, chief airports analyst for the Centre for Aviation.
Philadelphia International Airport, a hub for both full-service airlines like American and low-cost ones like Spirit, is only 25 miles away. The fact that it’s located on the south side of Philadelphia is a major barrier, too; if Delaware flyers had to drive through the city they might have more of an appetite for a local alternative.
To make a comparison with an airport serving a similarly sized county, Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin, served more than 1.8 million passengers in 2016. But its nearest international airport, in Milwaukee, is about 80 minutes away. That means landing in Madison saves a flyer a three-hour round-trip drive.
“It [an airport] is too small, it ain’t going to make it,” said Bentley, the analyst.
Bañez, the native Delawarean who consults with the airport, says one barrier comes from the mentality of Delawareans who have always assumed air travel included a drive to Philadelphia.
Even amid these challenges, the authority’s administrators and consultant say they can make a strong case for passenger air service.
Making the case for Wilmington
Why should air service matter when the airport is already sustaining itself?
For one, hitting the 10,000-flyer mark would boost the airport’s minimum federal capital grant from $150,000 to $1 million. In addition, airports receive a large chunk of the $4.50-per-ticket federal tax.
Robust passenger air service is a major part of what makes airports profitable, said Bentley. Globally, two-thirds of airports are in the red. Of those, 95% carry a million or fewer passengers a year, he said.
And though Wilmington’s proximity to Philadelphia has put it at a disadvantage, other small airports near metro areas have gained passenger service, Bañez says. For example, Concord Regional Airport is only a 25-minute drive from the international airport in Charlotte but low-fare carrier Allegiant offers flights from Concord to six destinations.
At Wilmington Airport, new customers could include price-conscious tourists, who may drive for two hours to get a cheaper fare, and businesspeople who may think as much about time as money.
“People are both price- and time-sensitive,” Bentley says, and Wilmington offers a shorter drive time and faster time through security.
About 2 million people live within a two-hour drive time from Wilmington Airport. Each day, 3,500 of them board an airplane, each a potential customer.
Part of Wilmington Airport’s pitch to airlines is its city’s concentration of the pharmaceutical and banking industries.
“Wilmington has the unique potential to sustain air service because of the strong business network,” Williams says.
Still, Williams doesn’t want to re-create the conditions that led to airlines arriving in Wilmington only to check
out months later.
“We want it to work this time,” he says. “It’s about being more pragmatic, businesslike and approaching it from a data-driven perspective. We think in the long run that’s a winning strategy.”