Airport hopes for grant to expand service; Chicago flights possible again
May 24, 2013
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  • Flights to Chicago and Boston are among possibilities with a grant Wilmington International Airport (ILM) hopes to secure with the help of local governments and businesses.

    Bringing home that potential award of $1 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)–meant to help small airports expand service–will require a show of “strong community support,” said New Hanover County Airport Authority Vice Chairman Tom Barber this week, adding there’s a June 1 deadline to document it.

    “As you know, the airport contributes over $640 million a year to the community,” Barber told Wilmington City Council on Tuesday. “Normally we’d like to do this all by ourselves [with any matching funds generated in-house], but this grant has special requirements.”

    At least 10 percent of the total grant amount has to originate from the community–from local governments or private businesses–as opposed to the airport itself. But under competitive pressure–ILM could be up against several other authorities pursuing the money–airport consultants recommended the community come up with $200,000, or 20 percent, to show USDOT a seriousness and enthusiasm for better air service here.

    Barber is trying to round up funding commitments and letters of support from local parties to include with the federal application. The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners has already given its nod for $100,000. Barber asked Wilmington City Council on Tuesday to commit to $50,000.

    “If we received a grant, our first priority is to try to re-establish service to Chicago,” a hub for United and American Airlines, said Barber.

    Also desired is JetBlue service to Boston, he said, with possible alternatives being Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas (American); Washington (D.C.) Dulles International Airport (United); and Denver, Colo. (United or Frontier). Airlines currently with ILM include U.S. Airways and Delta with service to Charlotte, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Airways announced in March a second daily nonstop flight from ILM to Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.

    Previously affiliated were Allegiant Air, which ended its flights from ILM to Orlando, Fla., in January, and American Airlines, which from mid-2011 until early 2012 ran the daily flights to Chicago.

    ‘Good for business’

    All local commitments have to be on paper by June 1, says ILM, though the commitments are only that until the airport learns it has won the grant. Another requirement is that ILM must be in negotiation with an airline for improved air service.

    Officials also emphasized the chance that ILM could get a reduced version of the grant; the $1 million is just the potential.

    But securing it could help the area’s economic development, with officials often noting that healthy air service is among key factors for companies looking for places to build their business.

    Existing businesses desire it, too, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said.

    “One of the things that we’ve been hearing for a while now, from GE Nuclear, from PPD, from the film industry, is more direct flights, more access to different locales,” said Saffo. “It is an economic development initiative.”

    Wilmington City Council on Tuesday received Barber’s presentation for consideration. Councilman Neil Anderson asked for some clarification on how the potential $1 million would help.

    “I guess I just figure if you had the ridership and the demand, that people would fill the demand,” Anderson posed.

    Barber said this grant in particular would, if awarded, show airlines the presence of community support and avail funding to defray airlines’ costs of doing business here.

    “The mathematics of the ridership is primary,” he acknowledged, but he stressed that every extra edge will help. “How we differentiate ourselves becomes very important.”