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Harrisburg International Airport looks to future for more passengers

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Harrisburg International Airport always wants to be competitive with airports just outside the region.

"We've had some good success in that," said Tim Edwards, HIA executive director.

Some airlines have left, but HIA has gained others, such as Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air last year. The airport offers prices comparable to tickets in other markets, especially if travel time, gas, parking and other ancillary costs are factored in, HIA says.

But the fact remains, many people are still willing to endure long drives for the lower ticket prices at larger airports, where airlines can spread the cost over a greater number of passengers and flights. The question becomes whether ticket price is the only thing that will bring more people.

Not necessarily, HIA officials and transportation consultants said. More airline service and how the airport improves itself can bring people, eventually driving price.

Maximizing airport property use diversifies revenue for HIA's operator, Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, Edwards said. That helps the airport defray operational costs, which affect airlines.

HIA has several projects lined up. It plans to demolish the old terminal, a former Air Force barracks and a vacant restaurant this year. It also will develop a 22-acre parcel adjacent to the vacant restaurant on the opposite side of Route 230 with a hotel, retail, restaurants and a bank.

The success of development on increasing airport traffic is debatable, however.

"Someone isn't going to see a Sheetz across the street and say, 'I have to use that airport,'" Edwards said. "But it greatly increases our visibility, so yes, indirectly it will open us up to a greater population using the airport."

To that end, airports need to market their regional assets and illustrate how their regions are beneficial to airlines if they're going to attract more flights and services, said Bruce Tarletsky, director of airport marketing for AvPorts, an airport consulting and management firm based in Dulles, Va.

Tarletsky worked with HIA over the past several years on its business with airlines and marketing strategies, including with Frontier following the departure of AirTran Airways after its merger with Southwest Airlines.

There are more than 200 airports similar to HIA trying to attract a shrinking field of airlines, Tarletsky said. If HIA is to be successful in improving its airline services and attracting more passengers, it must illustrate why people want to come here. So far, HIA and its midstate communities have done a good job with that, he said.

"They've really been successful in putting together a package that makes sense," he said.

At first, Frontier didn't quite understand what HIA could offer until it was demonstrated that it was a gateway to Gettysburg, Lancaster, Hershey, York and other destinations that capture history, business and unique vacation opportunities, Tarletsky said.

"You have all these places that people have a fascination with," he said.

Frontier started with seasonal service from Denver, then later took over the route to Orlando, Fla., that had been so popular as an AirTran service before it left in August. Then Allegiant came on board, offering flights to a second Orlando airport and Frontier expanded its Denver service.

"We're optimistic about the future," said Scott Miller, HIA's deputy director for marketing and public relations.

New airlines go a long way toward improving the airport's reach with passengers by offering new options that bolster HIA's competitiveness, he said.

However, there are still realities of the airline markets, such as high fuel costs and consolidation, that will mean slower progress in passenger growth and lowering ticket prices, Miller said, although the airport has a good base to build from.

Total passengers using HIA has been holding steady between 1.2 million and 1.3 million a year with a slight upward trend since 2006 after declines in the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade.

The average number of departing seats per day at HIA was nearly 3,700 in 1998, which declined with the growth of Southwest in Baltimore, Miller said. The drop in departing seats slowed in 2006 and since 2009 airlines have been adding departing seats, for an average of 2,303 last year.

With fewer planes, that means they are nearly 80 percent full on average, as opposed to 55 percent full during the '90s, Miller said. In today's environment, half-empty planes wouldn't help the airport, he said.

"We're looking at ways to bring more passengers back," Tarletsky said. "And that brings airline services and reduces rates."

That means reaching out to the public and to airlines to offer new destinations and options to the public. In time, the airlines expand service and prices come down.

"We believe we could have more passengers than we did in the '90s," Miller said

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jimr@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.

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