- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - About 20,000 fewer people boarded planes out of Montgomery last year, and an airport official said unless those numbers change course they could eventually lead to fewer flights and less jobs.

The number of passengers have ebbed since Sept. 11, 2001, said Chip Gentry, the vice president of air service development for both the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the Montgomery Regional Airport. But he said the dropoff from about 181,000 passengers in 2012 to about 161,000 last year was unusual and worrying.

“That’s quite a decline for a state capital, and especially a capital with a booming economy,” Gentry said. “But at the same time as we sit in the shadow of other airports, people are more inclined to drive.

“We had a meeting with Delta and they said, ‘We’re capturing all of your passengers everywhere else.’ The airlines do look at that.”

Gentry recently revealed the numbers during a report to Montgomery area officials. He said efforts to improve the air service here won’t take off until more commercial passengers and business people start using the local airport instead of driving to Birmingham or Atlanta.

“Pull your staff off the road,” Gentry told city, county and state leaders. “In order to improve this, we have to grow what we have. All the airlines made that clear.”

Gentry recently met with airline representatives at an industry conference, armed with a new study that found some surprising facts about Montgomery air travelers. One of the most surprising: Only one of the top 10 final destinations is a Delta hub city. American Airlines has a far bigger presence among the most popular destinations for Montgomery travelers.

The study, by Sixel Consulting Group, also found that Seoul, Korea, is the No. 8 most popular destination for Montgomery air travelers.

“We’re able to take this business plan and show them what Korea (means) to us,” Gentry said. “Our goal is to ask for dual-class service.”

Montgomery also requested a fourth American Airlines flight and a nonstop Delta flight to Detroit, based on the study results.

Three of the planes used for its connecting flights will be upgraded starting next month, moving from the old CRJ-200s to CRJ-900s. The new planes have about 76 seats and include first class and economy comfort sections.

The airport authority also is working on a plan to upgrade the amenities inside the airport.

But Gentry made it clear that the real key to growth is getting more passengers.

“It’s not doom and gloom,” he said. “But we’ve got to get in front of it, and we’ve got to change the mindset of the community to make Montgomery first in their travel plans.”

Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Harris said a family member recently visited and refused to use the local airport because she doesn’t like small, propeller planes. Those planes haven’t been in use in Montgomery since 2002.

“It’s a perception thing,” Harris said.

Gentry said he often hears horror stories about frequent cancellations or delays, but the Sixel study found that only 82 cancellations out of 8,400 flights in 2013. On-time data was about the same as airports in surrounding cities.

He said others cite higher ticket prices from Montgomery but don’t factor in the fact that they’ll pay more in gas and parking fees when driving to another city.

Those negative perceptions could hurt economic development efforts. Gentry said some companies require air service to at least five hubs to consider a location, and Montgomery serves only three hubs.

“We just don’t have that kind of air service, so it’s important to us and our economic development strategy that we build air service to a competitive level,” Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce President Randy George said.

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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