500 Terminal Drive, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Getting one is high on their wish-list. It’s something they are trying to accomplish all the time.
But officials at the Naples Municipal Airport said while commercial service is a priority, they don’t need it to survive.
“The Naples airport is commercially viable and fiscally viable without (commercial) service,” said John Allen, chairman of the Naples Airport Authority, the airport’s governing board.
“We remain a community airport, and there’s an overwhelming support for commercial service out of the airport. It’s an objective, a priority and a goal.”
The Naples Airport Authority has stated one of its goals for fiscal 2010 is to get a commercial air carrier at the airport. The hope has been to have someone in place by November, but officials have said that may not be possible.
The airport has had commercial service off and on since 1950. The airport is currently without scheduled commercial service, and has been since 2008.
Continental Airlines left the airfield in June 2008, just months after it first began service. The airline offered flights to Tampa, but while business continued to grow, the momentum needed to get through the off-season wasn’t there.
Yellow Air Taxi, a service operated by Friendship Airways, stopped scheduled service to Key West in December. Owners said at the time a number of factors contributed to their decision to stop scheduled service.
Since then the airport has actively pursued leads on commercial carriers, often times with little luck. The airport in June lost service with Vision Airlines — which had planned to offer service to Miami and Atlanta — before a contract was even signed, because the airline could not reach a profitable agreement with Georgia-based Aviation Management Services, which operates the Naples airport.
“It is not the Naples community that has failed the airlines,” said Ted Soliday, the airport’s executive director. “The airlines have failed us.”
Soliday said Naples residents have long supported commercial airlines, and he has the numbers to back it up.
Delta Connection provided three scheduled flights a day to and from Atlanta each day between November 2004 and September 2007. The airline saw passenger loads greater than 70 percent, a high number considering it was a relatively new service, Soliday said.
“Despite the high load factors, Delta terminated service from Naples as of Oct. 1, 2007, due to aircraft fleet utilization issues and capacity issues at Atlanta,” he said. “Delta served almost 140,000 passengers while in Naples.”
Naples isn’t alone in its efforts to recruit — or maintain — commercial air service. Bill Johnson, the executive director of the Florida Airports Council, said this is an issue small, community airports are facing across the country.
“It’s not a Florida issue, it’s a national issue,” Johnson said. “Airports up north constantly have this struggle.”
Naples isn’t struggling as bad as other airports, said Soliday, because it has a strong general aviation center.
“We don’t need commercial service,” Soliday said. “Our fiscal 2010 budget shows that commercial service will decrease the authority’s operating income.”
The airport has an operating budget of about $9.8 million in fiscal 2010. Airport officials said they expect to put about $8.3 million toward operating expenses, leaving the airport with about $1.4 million in income next year.
“It’s very clear that general aviation creates the revenue that would allow us to subsidize (commercial carriers),” Allen said.
The budget factors in the cost of commercial service, but Soliday said last month the airport could tweak its budget if a carrier doesn’t pan out.
The airport is looking at both traditional and nontraditional carriers to provide service to major hubs, essentially putting Naples residents one connection away from anywhere in the world.
“It probably won’t be the traditional service, but we can’t rule that out,” Allen said. “What I’d like to see, at a minimum, is to see intrastate service that would provide access to Naples to hubs.”
Nontraditional carriers may be just the ticket. Airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue, Johnson said, often opt to fly out of a non-primary airport — in the case of Southwest Florida that would be Naples airport instead of Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers — to connect with regional customers.
But Naples’ location could mean a difficult decision for airlines. Johnson said because of its close proximitiy to Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale could mean airlines are wary of opening up shop in Naples.
Soliday, regardless of the obstacles, said he still sees commercial service in the airport’s future.
“We see a bustling commercial terminal serving our local community with flights to major hubs such as Miami, Tampa, Atlanta, etc., with connecting service to anywhere in the world,” he said in an e-mail.
“We continue to see the Naples Municipal Airport as the best little airport in the country, and we’re just getting started.”
Connect with Naples reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jenna_buzzacco