Some advice for Piedmont Triad International Airport

by Jim Longworth

My previous warnings to the airport authority have gone unheeded, my suggestions dismissed. Now comes news that airfares at Piedmont Triad International Airport have risen more than 17 percent in the past year. To put that into perspective, that’s the fifth largest increase in fares among the nation’s top 85 airports.

Airport officials blame the increases on the failure of so-called discount airlines to effectively compete in this market. That analysis is not without merit. After all, Independence Air went bankrupt a year ago, and Air Tram departed a year before that. And, to be fair, a number of small carriers were adversely affected by the actions of greedy oil companies and their post-Katrina price gouging. But to put all of the blame for high airfares on someone (or something) else is a bit disingenuous.

A year ago, following cancellation of dozens more flights at PTI by large carriers, I called for the authority to initiate a series of actions, including offering free parking. I also suggested that since PTI had a limited number of non-stop flights (which were literally driving Triad customers to Charlotte’s Douglas airport) we should offer customers two-for-one tickets on any travel that required them to lay over between Greensboro and their destination.

Finally, I urged the authority to launch an aggressive advertising campaign to tout the aforementioned inducements. None of these things were done, nor, I reckon, even considered.

I am told that the major airlines won’t add flights to a non-hub site such as PTI unless they believe the additional flights will be filled. Translation: The big boys like Delta, United and American want proof that we can generate traffic. 

Okay, so let me take one last stab at this dilemma. Let’s float a bond that will give the authority enough cash to run a limited rebate campaign. Under this scenario, anyone who flies out of Greensboro would be eligible to receive a rebate check equal to the difference in airfare between PTI and, say, Charlotte Douglas. Try the experiment for six months and augment it with a saturation ad campaign. Note to the authority: Saturation doesn’t mean putting up one billboard near the airport! At the end of the trial run, calculate the warm bodies that traveled through PTI. If the numbers don’t jump sharply, then we’ll know once and for all that PTI will never again compete as a major airport. If, however, the traffic increases significantly, then the authority can take that data to American, United, Delta and other majors, and demand that more flights, especially non-stop flights, be added to Greensboro. Once the large carriers agree to take a risk then extend the rebate program temporarily during the transition. Then, with volume comes lower airfares, and the problem should work itself out over time.

Again, I realize that PTI is not solely to blame for its woes, but they also haven’t tried to think outside the box and get aggressively creative. I want PTI to succeed for several reasons. First, it employs hundreds of people in a host of capacities, and we can ill afford to lose those jobs. Second, I hate having to drive to Charlotte for non-stop flights. And third, we depend upon fees from rental cars to fund regional transportation initiatives.

I urge the authority to go full throttle and take steps to turn things around. If they don’t like any of my suggestions, then let them come up with some of their own. 

If no action is taken, then I fear the only way we might be able to fly out of Greensboro in the future will be to stuff ourselves into a Federal Express box. 

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).