BLOOMINGTON — In Flint, Mich., more airline competition meant travelers got cheaper plane tickets to more destinations.
In Mobile, Ala., however, such competition forced one airline out of town, and customers were left paying 30 percent more to board a plane, said commercial aviation analyst William Swelbar, president of Virginia-based Eclat Consulting.
Now, Twin City travelers will be winners or losers of the competition between AirTran Airways and Delta Connection.
"In the short term, this could be a benefit to our customers because competition keeps fares down and at the very least keeps fares competitive," said Carl Olson, executive director of Central Illinois Regional Airport. "But in the long run, simply duplicating service will harm the airport."
Flying under the Delta Connection banner, Atlantic Southeast Airlines began offering roundtrip service to Atlanta in December and will offer service to Orlando this summer, two destinations already offered by AirTran, CIRA’s longtime staple.
When Delta made the announcement, Olson and members of the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority quickly expressed concern that AirTran would leave and CIRA would be faced with a similar situation as Mobile, Ala.
"That’s certainly not going to happen in Bloomington-Normal," said Mike Boyd, a longtime consultant with the Bloomington airport and other airports around the country. "In Bloomington-Normal, you have the outgrowth of some really lovely, nasty competition. The consumer has won big time. The fact is airlines go at each other. It happens all the time. As long as there are airlines in existence, they will come and they will go, but I don’t see that happening in Bloomington-Normal."
Olson would not comment on Boyd’s opinion.
Boyd said a thriving Twin City business community protects CIRA passenger counts and makes CIRA attractive to airlines.
Plus, business travelers often pay more than leisure travelers because they buy tickets on shorter notice when fares are more expensive, said AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver.
"We’ve had a pretty stable presence there and we hope that continues," she said. "As long as the routes remain profitable, we’ll be there."
Lisa Walker, Atlantic Southeast Airline’s vice president for airport operations, said the company was excited about being in the Bloomington market. She said ASA has done significant research to make sure the market can support its new service.
While Swelbar isn’t convinced the Twin Cities can support two airlines traveling to the same destination, Boyd thinks it can.
Business-traveling companies such as State Farm Insurance Cos., Country Insurance & Financial Services, Mitsubishi Motors North America and others provide a strong customer base for airlines such has AirTran and Delta, Boyd said.
"(AirTran) could have gone into Peoria or Champaign, and those are both good markets, but AirTran chose Bloomington-Normal," Boyd said. "Your economy is stable and it’s varied. They’re all growth industries, and some are globally focused.
"Look around. I hate to tell you but the beautiful farmland is being eaten up by residential development,” he added, saying CIRA’s customer base is growing, not shrinking.
And airlines know it. The Bloomington airport has made itself known around the country through different marketing gimmicks, Boyd said.
Airport officials once sent a proposal taped to a beach ball, hand-delivered by Mickey Mouse to an airline.
"It got their foot in the door," Boyd said. "It was classy. It was funny. It broke up the airline’s day. Bloomington-Normal is the most innovative airport in the country, period."
But innovation only goes so far. The market will determine whether two airlines can survive flying to the same destinations, Swelbar said.
"From a Bloomington perspective, you’re not a Los Angeles or New York that has lots of people with lots of money," he said.
In Flint, Mich., for example, the Bishop International Airport has a surrounding market defined by a 50 mile radius of the airport of nearly 3.5 million people, said airport director James Rice. There, competition between AirTran and Northwest Airlines produced cheaper fares. The two airlines also began offering new destinations, trying to outdo each other, James said. While not all of the new destinations lasted, the cheaper fares stayed.
"Most of the time, the competition is good if the market can handle it because it keeps the fares down," Rice said.
"I don’t think either one of us could afford to lose AirTran."
Unlike Flint, Mich., CIRA’s market range covers about 1 million people. In that sense, CIRA is more comparable to Mobile, Ala.
And airline competition has more benefit when a community doesn’t already have a low-fare carrier, Swelbar added.
"Typically, the consumer is going to benefit, but historically, the consumer benefits more when a low-fare carrier enters the market. Here, the low-fare carrier is already in the market, and a bankrupt carrier has come in," he said.
Bankrupt carriers like Delta typically lower fares for a limited time, enough time to attract a customer base, Swelbar said.
Still, AirTran remains one of the few profitable airlines in the country, despite daily battles with bankrupt carriers and others in cities across the nation.
"At this point, AirTran seems to be doing very well against Delta in bankruptcy," Swelbar said. "Do I see reason for concern? Not really at this point."