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Flying under the radar Piedmont Triad International airport makes moves to stay ahead

by Ogi Overman

Ask a random sample of Americans what the initials ‘PTI’ stand for, and most of those who don’t respond with a blank stare are likely to answer with the popular ESPN program hosted by Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon, ‘“Pardon The Interruption.’” Chances are only a few frequent flyers or Tar Heel residents would recognize PTI as the actual name of the airport that is denoted by the initials ‘GSO’ on their luggage tags.

Indeed, on the scale of recognizable American airports, Piedmont Triad International is, to use the aviation analogy, flying under the radar. PTI would not exactly be mentioned in the same breath as, say, LaGuardia, O’Hare, LAX, Logan, Hartsfield, Dulles or any of the handful of airports that are synonymous with the metro areas they serve. Yet, in terms of significance to the 18-county area dominated by Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, the 3,000-acre campus on the western edge of Guilford County arguably has as much impact, directly or indirectly, as any business entity in central North Carolina.

As evidence, on one single day recently, the front page of the Greensboro News & Record contained no fewer than four stories on airport-related topics. In bitter irony, PTI lost one of its carriers, Independence Air, on the same day that longtime chairman of the Airport Authority, Stanley Frank, passed away at age 91. That day, Jan. 3, the daily paper also ran stories on the rerouting of Bryan Boulevard to accommodate the expansion of PTI Airport and an update on construction of the FedEx hub, slated to open in 2008. Then, two weeks later, WFMY News2 aired a piece on the opening of the expanded North Concourse, which will have its formal grand opening on Feb. 2. These are but two examples in the ongoing PTI saga, the continuing tale of the facility that connects roughly 1.3 million local citizens with the rest of the world.

Problem is, as some of those citizens are only too happy to complain, there’s a layover.

Battling the elements

It’s no secret that PTI has taken its licks lately. Both Delta and USAir cut flights last year, before Independence Air ceased operation the first week of 2006. Currently, the airport has 72 daily flights, down from a nine-year high of 103 in September 2004 and 92 as recently as September 2005. The overall malaise of the airline industry, caused in large part by skyrocketing jet fuel prices and tight competition, is obviously being felt by the individual airports as well as the carriers. Every global facility, regardless of size, is at the mercy of elements far beyond its control.

Given the industry’s precarious state of affairs across the board, one might expect some hand-wringing and commiserating in and around the local terminal. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. A recent visit to the PTI Airport Authority offices reveals that hard work is the order of the day ‘— this and every other day ‘— that recent setbacks should be no cause for great alarm, and that the good news counterbalances the bad. Why, there’s not a panic button in sight.

‘“We’ve been down to 70-something flights before and survived,’” says Edward A. ‘Ted’ Johnson, executive director of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority. ‘“The airline industry is in terrible shape right now; three of our major tenants are under bankruptcy. Still, in the face of all that, we had over 1.3 million passengers last year.’”

Johnson has other reasons for cautious optimism. A Dec. 30 article by Reuters contends that the sector has actually rebounded since September, when two major carriers filed for bankruptcy, and that several airlines are poised for a return to profitability in 2006. The PTI director concurs.

‘“We went out to Phoenix to see USAir last Wednesday,’” he remarks, ‘“and we’re comfortable that they are making the transition and are going to come out of it a leaner, meaner airline. Also, we’ll see United come out of bankruptcy this spring, and their traffic is growing here, too. Only three (carriers) were down in passengers in December; Continental was up, American Eagle was up, and United was up. Delta pulled their hub out of Dallas-Fort Worth and cut back some flights and repositioned some airplanes, but they’ll come back stronger, too. They’re anxious to move over to the North Concourse as soon as we get it open, and we are all very excited about that. They say they’ll be adding some services by spring.’”

Johnson does add a word of caution, however: ‘“Oil prices are the key to the industry; that has a big effect on it. If they stay reasonable, I really think 2006 will be a good year. But there’s no way to predict where they’ll go. We just don’t have any control over that.’”

That’s not to say that PTI, or its hundreds of global counterparts, are completely at the mercy of external factors. There are numerous elements within its control, methods to ensure profitability, ways to market its product. PTI uses a sort of two-pronged approach.

‘“Not only do we have to market ourselves to passengers but to the airlines as well,’” explains Stephanie Freeman, PTI’s marketing director. ‘“I have a 20-minute Power Point presentation that I show the various airlines, demonstrating to them what a great community we have. We give them all the demographics that show that people will fly with them if they’ll locate here. There’s no areathat’s not being reached by our marketing efforts. We’re doing everything we can, both to induce passengers to fly out of here and carriers to bring service here.’”

Not surprisingly, in the face of carrier cutbacks and declining ridership, Johnson, Freeman, the Airport Authority staff and consultants have stepped up their marketing and promotional efforts lately. They have targeted two low-fare airlines, Southwest and JetBlue, in hopes of luring them here to replace defunct Independence Air.

‘“We’ve been out to meet with Southwest five or six times and they’ve been here three or four,’” reveals Johnson, a ’63 Duke University grad with a degree in engineering. ‘“On December 1 we went to see JetBlue and they’ve been here a number of times. And last week we went to Phoenix to talk to USAir. We have a lot of things we can tout about our area. We point out Dell and FedEx, the 254,000 college kids here, all the banks and the various positive aspects we have to offer. But the bottom line is that the airlines are looking for people to put in these seats, so we always point out that we have 1.8 million people in our market.’”

Even so, in terms of passengers, PTI ranks around 80th in the United States, a fact that will not move upward or downward dramatically, regardless of marketing and promotion. ‘“We’ve always been the third-largest airport in the state,’” says Johnson, ‘“and I anticipate that’s where we’re going to stay. An airport is really a reflection of the community it serves. We can’t be anything different. What we need is more economic development and businesses coming here, because that creates more people flying.’”

Fare play

Ted Johnson, who has been an employee of the airport since 1968, and its executive director since 1993, sees himself as having a dual mandate, at least in the short term.

‘“My primary focus right now is luring another carrier here and keeping fares competitive with Raleigh,’” he admits. ‘“What drives people is fares, there’s no way around it. We study them constantly, and everywhere we go to talk to the airlines we call attention to the disparity in fares and ask for their help in getting us parity with Raleigh and Charlotte. We’re pretty competitive with Charlotte right now, but there continues to be a disparity with Raleigh.

‘“[Authority board chairman] Henry Isaacson has made it a real part of his tenure here to getting fares down as low as possible and getting more services in here, and obviously the staff supports that,’” Johnson adds. ‘“We feel like we’ve got a good story to tell; we’ve just got to get these fares right and we’ll get the people.’”

Marketing guru Freeman is doing her part as well. Each Wednesday she sends out a blanket e-mail detailing various rock-bottom fares departing from PTI. Last week, for instance, she announced round-trip flights to Atlanta ($108), Chicago ($177), LaGuardia ($128 and $168), Philadelphia ($148) and Paris ($522).

‘“There are some pretty attractive fares out there if you plan far enough ahead,’” she notes. ‘“These are available through our on-line booking service and there are some special restrictions, but the idea is to get people to understand that there are some really low fares here.’”

Although the PTI Airport Authority staff is doing everything in their power to keep fares low, it may ultimately be FedEx that drives them downward. While Johnson doesn’t see the company’s arrival as a panacea, he believes it will be a huge boost to the economy, which, in turn, boosts air travel.

‘“FedEx will be a major connection to the entire world and we will be a part of the whole network,’” claims Johnson, a Durham native. ‘“And that will enhance traffic in and out. It may not happen overnight, but over the years you will see other large companies, national and international, setting up some kind of facilities here.

‘“FedEx invited us to Alliance, Texas, in 1997, because that’s close to what the facility here will look like. Aside from the sorting hub, a maintenance facility and a railyard, the rest was tumbleweeds. And now, some seven or eight years later, that whole area is blossoming tremendously. Clearly, their being here will encourage other businesses to locate here, and that will translate into more airline passengers and lower fares.

‘“I’m positive about this region and positive about the airport, because if the region is growing, so is the airport. As I’ve said many times, we are only a reflection of the community we serve.’”

The Balance sheet

Unfortunately, some Triadians seem to labor under the misconception that Piedmont Triad International Airport is supported by tax dollars. They seem to fear that if flights and ridership continue to decline, it will become, not unlike the Greensboro Coliseum, a burden on local taxpayers.

Rest assured, dear taxpayer. PTI is 100 percent self-sufficient and financially independent. It receives no city, county, state or federal taxes for operating expenses. Its revenues are generated by rental fees and charges, airlines, tenants, parking and concessionaires.

The airport’s annual operating revenue budget for 2006 is $29.6 million. For the same fiscal year, its operating expense budget is $10.7 million, while its debt service and interest expense is $11.9 million, leaving a surplus of $7 million.

‘“All those funds are plowed back into the airport to keep it growing,’” reveals Johnson. ‘“It goes toward runways, taxiways, the terminal, acquisition of land, matching federal grants, and the like. The new North Concourse, for instance, was about a $6 million job; we paid $3 million and the federal government matched it.’”

Adds Freeman, ‘“We are set up as a quasi-municipality. No money leaves the airport for county coffers. We are in excellent shape financially.’”

The balance sheet got a little better Jan. 1 when Comair, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines, opened up a maintenance facility at PTI that will employ 56 people. They also brought in a crew base of pilots and flight attendants numbering 200.

‘“Those kinds of things don’t get a lot of publicity,’” says Johnson, ‘“but they sure do contribute to the overall well-being of the airport. Plus, our fixed-base operators, Atlantic Aero and Landmark, do a lot of business here.’”

As for the physical plant itself, Johnson sees little need for additional accoutrements once the current phase of construction and expansion is complete.

‘“We’re moving all the screening devices to a new area out on the concourse and we have a new seating area,’” comments Johnson. ‘“And what you don’t see is the new conveyor belt underneath us, with three X-ray machines, that will move luggage and cargo quicker and more efficiently than ever before. All of this enhances the flow of getting passengers through the terminal.

‘“Our physical plant is in excellent shape. I don’t see the need to do too much more to it for a number of years. We almost never get complaints about the airport itself.’”

The passengers speak

‘“You guys don’t know how lucky you are,’” raves Jim Redmond, a grocery chain executive from Brockton, Mass., who flies out of Boston’s Logan International quite regularly. ‘“I have a sister in Greensboro and a brother in Winston-Salem, and I love flying in to here. You couldn’t ask for more convenience than this, with the motels and parking and the highways so close by. Compared to some of the ordeals I have to go through, this is a dream.’”

Jason Steiner, a controls tech for Northwind Technical Services, is returning to Kansas from a business trip in Greensboro. He’s flying Northwest with a connecting flight in Memphis.

‘“Greensboro is as good as any,’” he smiles. ‘“You’ve got all the convenience with a nice small size. The lines are shorter and the crowds smaller. It’s close to where you need to go and the cost seems reasonable. It’s a very nice airport.’”

Tanya Shields, a child development facilitator from North Lincolnshire, England, is making her second trip to the United States, her first visit to Greensboro. She has a friend here. Then it’s on to Omaha (via Memphis) to spend some time with her dad. She departed from Manchester, England, connected at Dulles, then on to here.

‘“Greensboro is a nice, calm town and the people seem really friendly,’” smiles the statuesque Brit. ‘“A gentleman just helped me with my ticket, and I just got some Greensboro souvenirs to take back to the UK. My impression of this town and the airport is all positive.’”

Of course, airports being what they are, not every traveler arriving at or departing from PTI has a positive experience. Flights get delayed, nerves get frayed, folks object to stringent 9/11-induced security measures and kids get unruly. Even on this particular morning, a ticket agent was observed being rude to a photographer, and a certain writer got a parking ticket even though a person in the Airport Authority had called security and told them to ignore his vehicle.

But those minor inconveniences aside, most local observers would agree that the Piedmont region of North Carolina has an airport that it can be proud of, one that will serve it admirably, well into the future. As Stephanie Freeman says, ‘“We fly to 18 destinations each day, and we’re one stop away from anywhere in the world.’”

So what’s the big deal about a layover in Atlanta?

To comment on this story, e-mail Ogi Overman at ogi@yesweekly.com.

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