As work progresses on the construction of a new passenger terminal at Barkley Regional Airport, officials are also hoping plans to bring additional air service to the region will one day take flight.
Those plans, which include a study now in the works which analyzes opportunities for growth, has board members excited about the possibilities.
“Right now, we’re just on the cusp, the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, trying to figure out what this puzzle looks like,” said Jay Matheny, at a special meeting last Monday.
“I think this board has manifested a desire to do everything in our power to expand air service out of Barkley Regional Airport. We’re grateful that we have jet service to Chicago. You can connect to anywhere in the world out of Chicago.
“But it has to be said, people in the community have expressed a desire to expand air service. It’s something to be optimistic about. We’re hopeful that we can do this and that this new terminal project can hopefully be a springboard for it,” Matheny said.
Harrison Earl, project manager with CMT (Crawford, Murphy and Tilly), updated the board on the study expected to be completed in the coming weeks.
He also provided background on the U.S. Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service Program, in which the government subsidizes airlines to provide service to smaller communities which would otherwise operate at a loss.
Currently, Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, flying under the United Express banner, provides daily jet service from Paducah to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“When we look at this (EAS) we do see that there’s a lack of sustainability outside of the subsidy for the service going forward. The subsidy keeps it going,” Earl said.
“But that is also a real opportunity for the airport and for the region to be looking at growing passenger traffic at a fare that otherwise wouldn’t be possible without EAS.”
As part of the study, CMT has identified 58 zip codes around the airport and is analyzing traffic patterns for that region with regard to air travel to Chicago.
The study indicates more passengers use the Nashville, Tennessee, airport to fly to Chicago rather than Barkley Regional, even though Barkley fares are cheaper. Even within Paducah (zip code 42001), 50% of people flying to Chicago either drive to Nashville or St. Louis.
“Now, one way to view this is that’s not really a great outcome that people aren’t preferring to fly out of Barkley Regional,” Earl said. “But, actually I see it as an opportunity. This is where you have the opportunity to change some opinions, change perspectives, when you actually have a lower fare.”
Barkley Regional may not have the choices of airlines available at Nashville, “but you certainly have the convenience, you certainly have the fare and the non-stop flights on a network carrier that should be attractive to a number of passengers,” he said.
“That just feels like a huge opportunity to regain that service locally, to get people to use the airport more frequently and to set up a pattern of behavior.
“That is really important towards changing minds in the community but also establishing that fact that this is a community that will support the air service they have, and then look to potentially grow that air service down the road.”
According to Earl, at its core air service development is the process of recruiting additional air service to a community.
Another possibility the board is discussing, besides enhancing SkyWest’s service, is exploring the addition a low-cost carrier with flights to a Southern destination.
The reason it is so critical for airports to engage in air service development is “the fact that airports are largely funded by airline revenues, landing fees, terminal rents, and also the non-airline revenue like parking, rental cars and concessions directly tied to passenger traffic,” Earl said.
“The more flights you have, the larger aircraft you have, the more passengers you generally have. That helps support the revenue. To the broader community, however, it’s really an economic powerhouse for the region.
“It creates business and job opportunities, boosts tourism, brings folks into the market and helps with investment.”