Henrico County VA

Flying high

Southwest’s arrival viewed as a game-changer for Henrico, Metro Richmond
It took a number of years, but Richmond International Airport officials late last month finally were able to make an announcement they'd been working toward for years: Southwest Airlines is coming.

The airline announced that Richmond was among the 22 existing AirTran Airways markets that it would enter in the coming months. Southwest purchased AirTran last May and will convert its service to Southwest during a gradual phase-in period in those markets.

"Southwest is such an attractive airline for so many reasons," Richmond International Airport spokesman Troy Bell told the Citizen. "If they're in your market, your prices are more competitive. If you're focused on quality of life and economic development, then you want to be part of the Southwest route map."

For years, landing Southwest has been a priority for airport officials and others in the region, who originally sought the carrier as a way to help lower RIC's once-historically high rates, at a time when no other low-cost carriers served the market.

Though those initial attempts weren’t successful, RIC did attract AirTran Airways and then JetBlue – two other low-cost carriers – which helped slash rates among all airlines here to several popular destinations, including New York and Florida.

Southwest's purchase of AirTran had given local officials reason to hope, but the airline entered a lengthy period of evaluation, determining which AirTran markets to enter and which to avoid.

When the transition to Southwest will take effect here remains unknown, but Bell suggested that since the company was methodical in considering which AirTran markets to enter, it may take a similar amount of time to analyze the market and determine how to best serve Richmond.

"I think what we'll see is incremental growth," Bell said. "One of the things they would look at is what is the current traffic, what do people [from this market] pay to fly [to other markets].

"It remains critically important that our travelers and businesses continue to purchase and travel aboard all airlines that provide service from Richmond International Airport. Every ticket counts."

Nonstop service from RIC currently is available to about 20 markets. It's unknown how many additional destinations may be added once Southwest arrives, but the airline is about four times as large as AirTran, Bell said.

AirTran currently serves 72 cities, mostly in the eastern half of the United States. Southwest serves the same number of cities but covers most of the country, including – as its name suggests – a number of destinations in the southwestern United States. It also offers significantly more daily flights (about 3,300 compared with more than 700 a day for AirTran).

Gradual growth
Southwest's arrival also could have a significant impact on Henrico County and the Richmond region – for businesses and recreational travelers alike – without impacting the markets or frequency of flights currently available through AirTran, Bell said.

"Everything that's good with AirTran stays good [with this merger]. It just opens up more cities."

Among the most popular "wish-list" cities to which local travelers would like nonstop service are Nashville, Pittsburgh and Chicago, among others, Bell said. "There's a really long wish list out there. It would be good to just understand that this is going to be a very gradual unwrapping of the opportunity."

The region boasts 11 Fortune 1000 companies – including Henrico-based Altria Group, Genworth Financial and The Brink's Company – and other national and regional corporations with footprints in markets served by Southwest. Among them: HCA Virginia, whose parent company, HCA, is based in Nashville; and Altria Group, which in 2009 purchased Nashville's U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.

With no direct route to Nashville from Richmond currently, both corporations seemingly would help fill flights if such service were established at RIC. Southwest currently flies direct to Nashville from Norfolk International Airport. Norfolk once served about one million more passengers annually than RIC. Last year, the difference was only about 15,000 passengers. Both airports were down by about 4 percent in overall passengers last year, to about 3.2 million each.

By opening new markets to Richmond, Southwest also could pay big dividends for the Greater Richmond Convention Center, which hosts a number of national conventions each year. Many convention planners won't consider cities that aren't easily – and affordably – accessible.

"When you're talking to a meeting planner, one of the checklist items is 'Are you served by a low-cost carrier?' Bell said. "If the answer is no, then you don't even get consideration."

As Southwest begins to evaluate the region during the coming months to determine its flight schedule for RIC, Henrico County officials have taken the boldest step in support of the move of any Metro Richmond locality or corporation. The county declared Jan. 1 that AirTran would become its preferred carrier – meaning that county employees who travel for business must fly AirTran unless:

• the cost to do so is more than 10 percent higher than it would be on another airline; or

• AirTran does not fly to the destination; or

• AirTran flights to the destination require at least two stops.

During the most recent year for which the county has statistics on air travel by its employees, it spent approximately $100,000, Henrico Deputy County Manager John Vithoulkas said. Some flights are made by employees who are receiving professional training, while others involve the extradition of prisoners, he said.

"The county does not do a significant amount of air travel," Vithoulkas said, "but we did think it was important to show our support for our low-cost carrier because they are critical in maintaining a pricing balance at the airport."

The presence of AirTran in the region has a $125 million impact in direct and economic benefits, according to figures cited by Henrico officials, as well as a savings of $80 million to businesses and consumers in ticket costs.

"A low-tax environment and a high quality of life are variables that new businesses look at in choosing where to locate," Vithoulkas said. "From what we've heard from [Henrico] Economic Development folks, the cost of fares is a decision point as well. We want to maintain that."
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