Tucson airport chief Bonnie Allin really wanted to announce some new nonstop flights at the annual meeting of the Tucson Airport Authority on Monday.
That didn’t pan out, but airport officials and local business leaders are working very hard to get airlines to add new flights from Tucson to New York, Mexico and other priority destinations, Allin said at the meeting at the Arizona Inn.
“We are closer today than since 2008 to having nonstop service to New York and to Mexico,” said Allin, president and CEO of the airport authority.
Tucson and other smaller airports have suffered from diminished flight service as the airlines have consolidated and cut seats to stay aloft.
But Allin noted that last year Tucson saw some seasonal flights return and others added in 2015, including new Delta Air Lines service to Los Angeles International Airport, new nonstop service to Chicago O’Hare on United, and the resumption of seasonal nonstops to Seattle on Delta, Houston Hobby (Southwest), Minneapolis (Delta) and Portland (Alaska).
Overall, the number of available seats is up about 7 percent from last year, but the total number of passengers fell about 2 percent, mainly due to Southwest’s decision to drop one of its four Las Vegas nonstops, she said.
Still, progress on some routes is slow despite the Tucson airport’s air service incentive program, which gives airlines fee waivers and marketing support worth up to $1.4 million each for new, long-haul domestic and international flights, or up to $1 million for short-haul domestic routes.
The incentives have helped TIA add one flight, a Portland flight Alaska added in 2013, while work continues on other priority destinations such as New York, Washington, D.C., Albuquerque and Canada.
“We’ve learned after years of working with the airlines that you have to be persistent and patient,” Allin said.
The airport has been working closely with a potential start-up carrier in Mexico on flights to Hermosillo and Guaymas, but that has not been finalized, Allin said.
Local officials were pushing hard to get a new flight to the New York area in time for the winter season, but that won’t likely happen until next winter, Allin said.
The airport says local officals have been in close contact with three airlines on potential New York routes.
The effort to secure new nonstops to New York City, or nearby airports such as Newark, is being spearheaded by an “air-service task force” of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber has amassed $3 million in member commitments for a fund as a “minimum revenue guarantee” to attract new flights by making up any revenue shortfall to the airlines.
Bill Assenmacher, who was elected to the Tucson Airport Authority board Monday, has led the chamber’s effort with Chamber president and CEO Mike Varney.
Assenmacher, CEO of the metal fabrication firm CAID Industries, said in an interview the chamber has been courting several airlines for New York-area flights, including JetBlue and American at JFK International Airport and United at Newark, New Jersey.
“We’re literally the largest city in the world that doesn’t have service to New York,” he said.
Chamber members are excited about adding United flights because the airline is expanding service to Europe, Assenmacher said. But talks stalled last year after United’s CEO stepped down and his replacement had a heart transplant, he said.
The revenue-guarantee fund is something the chamber can provide that the airport can’t offer because of its reliance on airline fees, Assenmacher noted.
“We really believe it can be a game-changer,” he said.
Chamber members, including local auto dealers and resorts, have committed money to the revenue-guarantee fund, Assenmacher said, declining to name the donors.
The guarantee funds would only be tapped if new flights fell short of expected revenues, Assenmacher said, adding, “We don’t want to use this money.”
Allin said the major problem remains competition from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, noting that about a million people drive from Tucson to fly out of Sky Harbor, though it can be faster and, with added expenses, about the same cost to fly from Tucson.
“We have a lot of people who drive to Phoenix to take a flight to San Diego,” she said.
TAA board changes
Tony Finley, chief financial officer for Long Cos. was elected 2016 chairman of the Tucson Airport Auhority, replacing Steve Cole;
David Goldstein, president of Diamond Ventures, was elected vice president;
Lisa Lovallo, a regional vice president of Cox Communications, is secretary;
Taunya Villicana, managing partner of Affinity Wealth Management, is treasurer
New members for 2016 are: Bill Assenmacher, CAID Industries; Bruce Dusenberry, Suddath Relocation Systems; Kathy Ward, GV Strategic Advisors