Airport wants more nonstop flights

With projections that the total seat capacity of airlines flying out of Indianapolis will decrease 2.3 percent by year’s end, the Indianapolis Airport Authority is stepping up efforts to boost its air-service offerings.

Its focus will include trying to attract nonstop flights from Indianapolis International to San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle, IAA Chief Financial Officer Marsha Stone told the airport authority's board Friday morning.

The authority estimates that more than 450 people a day head to those destinations from Indianapolis—albeit connecting through other airports, first.

Airlines “want to know which companies are doing business in those markets,” said Stone, whose team is trying to better identify demand to make a compelling case to airlines for more nonstops from Indianapolis.

 “The more we can work with the local business community, the better,” she said.

Stone plans to meet with United Airlines next week about what it would take to begin nonstop service to San Francisco.  Now-defunct local carrier ATA Airlines once provided service to the northern California city.

Indianapolis and many other non-hub airports have been harder hit with flight reductions following the economic downturn, rising jet fuel prices and mergers among airlines.

Passenger boardings year-to-date at Indianapolis International are up 2.4 percent, although that’s largely due to the Super Bowl held here in February. If not for the football game, traffic likely would be down about 1.5 percent year-to-date.

“We don’t have that flow-through traffic that happens in a hub environment,” Stone said.

Airlines often want evidence a nonstop flight could draw enough passengers to operate profitably, as well as incentives in the form of financial assurances from airports to make it worth their while. “They’re looking to communities to kick in dollars,” Stone noted.

At an IBJ Power Breakfast panel discussion in March, some of the city’s top technology leaders complained that the lack of nonstop flights was one of the top issues hampering the local tech industry.

Venture capital firms in Silicon Valley often balk at visiting the city because of the time it takes to get here changing planes, they said.

“They need to be able to get up in the morning, wake up in their own bed, come here, do a board meeting or an interview and then get home for a late dinner or to tuck in the kids back in Silicon Valley,” ChaCha Search founder and CEO Scott Jones said.

Stone said airport executives are also looking this year to get airlines to upgrade existing service. That includes use of larger aircraft capable of providing business-class service.

Timing of flights is another issue. While Delta Air Lines offers a nonstop to Los Angeles, the return flight is a red-eye, late in the night.

Cargo service is another area of focus. Only about 1.1 percent of goods manufactured in Indiana leave the state via the airport. Most are trucked out—and sometimes to airports in Chicago, to be loaded onto airplanes there.

Stone said the airport also wants to play up its capabilities in temperature-sensitive air cargo. Roche Diagnostics, Schenker Logistics and Cargolux already have facilities at the airport that handle such product. Indianapolis International in fact is already a diversion city for cargo aircraft bound for Chicago, which has frequent weather and congestion problems.  “We need to get that message out.”

A key focus this year will be the U.S. Postal Service’s former express-mail hub at the airport. Although the postal service handles mail by truck from that facility, the air side has not operated for about a decade, when the postal service hired FedEx to handle mail.

The 340,000-square-foot facility, with 42 acres of aircraft parking area, is being touted for potential as a life science/biopharma handling facility.

Meanwhile, the board today approved a pared-down employee travel schedule for the remainder of the year—one conspicuously devoid of trips to overseas destinations.

Three trips proposed to conferences in Canada are the extent of foreign travel among the 79 trips approved—compared to more than 100 proposed by airport staff and executives.

IBJ reported March 12 that former IAA CEO John Clark and two top executives last year spent more than $67,000 on trips to conferences and business development destinations including Brazil, Denmark, Greece, Morocco and Switzerland.

The airport board’s new president, Mike Wells, said such trips raised concerns. Upon taking the post, Wells said he wanted to review all proposed travel.

The airport recently declined to renew Clark’s employment contract, which had reached the end of its three-year term. Chosen as interim airport chief was long-time airport executive Robert Duncan, who had retired only months earlier.

Many of the trips on the airport’s proposed travel list involve conferences, professional training and pitches to potential tenants. 

Among them are trips to talk with executives of Nippon Cargo Airlines in Chicago, and airline Cathay Pacific in Los Angeles.

Cargo traffic at the airport has been a savior for the airport’s finances amid the downtown in passenger traffic in recent years. FedEx, in fact, pays the bulk of all aircraft landing fees, thanks to its No. 2 U.S. hub on the south side of the airport.

Airport officials have landed additional air-cargo service by Cargolux, which flies to Indianapolis directly from Europe, and additional nonstop FedEx cargo flights from overseas. 

European aircraft refurbishment firm Comlux Aviation has been growing its operations in Indianapolis, as well.


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