Chattanooga Airport's Goals Include Adding Denver, LaGuardia, Upping Miami Service

  • Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Chattanooga Airport’s ongoing primary focus is to add nonstop service to Denver and LaGuardia, and to increase to daily its seasonal Saturday service to Miami, which begins June 3.

Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority President and CEO April Cameron told the Rotary Club of Chattanooga on Thursday that air service development depends on the community’s support.

“It’s our airport and we are the key to its success,” she said. She bragged that Chattanooga passengers can get almost anywhere in the world with one stop.

CHA will offer 10 nonstop destinations this summer: Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and, beginning in May, Las Vegas on Allegiant Air, Chattanooga’s only low-cost carrier.

“Las Vegas was a really big win for us,” Ms. Cameron said. Building that relationship with an air carrier is a “marathon,” she said, but such a relationship with Delta Air Lines will bring back nonstop service to LaGuardia in New York when the time is right for the carrier.

“We want to be top of mind,” she said.

A passenger leakage study revealed in February found that Chattanooga is retaining just 39 percent of its market in the city and surrounding counties in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. But Chattanooga’s load factor hovers near 90 percent. Planes are full, she said.

“We’re trying to convince the carriers that we need more seats, we need more destinations,” Ms. Cameron said.

She said passengers vote when they purchase a plane ticket.

“We’re asking you to check Chattanooga,” she said.

CHA lost two destinations and some seat capacity in 2020, leading to a 50 percent drop in enplanements from the airport’s all-time high of 555,000 in 2019. But 2023 reported an encouraging 488,000 enplanements.

INDUSTRY CHALLENGES FOR CHATTANOOGA

New York air traffic controller shortage: One in three air traffic controller positions in the New York area is vacant, leading to mandatory slot reductions in the number of flights an air carrier can operate. When the positions are filled and the mandates lifted, probably in 2025, Ms. Cameron said, Chattanooga can work to restore its nonstop service to LaGuardia.

Supply chain delays: Mid-size airports are due mid-size aircraft as legacy carriers replace mainline route aircraft with new, bigger planes. But delays in parts for the new aircraft mean Chattanooga, too, must wait for its bigger planes, which offer higher seat capacity.

Ground staff salaries: A member of the audience alluded that understaffed and undertrained ground crews, who are often the face of an airline and handle baggage, are giving airports a bad image, and that low salaries are to blame.

Ms. Cameron said that though it’s ultimately the airlines’ decision to increase salaries, “They need to hear it from both sides,” she said. She encouraged passengers to communicate the problems they’ve had to the airlines, as she herself is doing, to overhaul the pay scale.

“We’re very hopeful that they will do that,” she said.

CHA has 55 employees including fire, police, maintenance, operations and administration. While each airline’s own staff controls ticketing, baggage, gate agents and almost everything else a customer deals with at the airport, Ms. Cameron said the airport can guide the customer service and may step in to help if the airline allows it, such as a police officer pushing a wheelchair.

Pilot shortage: Many pilots retired during the pandemic. Existing pilots are being shifted to mainline routes, leaving shortages for smaller markets like Chattanooga.

TERMINAL EXPANSION

The airport celebrated the grand opening of its terminal renovation and expansion on March 2.

Ms. Cameron quoted an online review of the new security checkpoint: “It’s faster than a Taco Bell drive-thru.”

New CT scanners do not require passengers to remove liquids. Ms. Cameron said the usual wait is two minutes, and a worst-case scenario wait is 15 minutes.

PAST AND FUTURE

The Authority is beginning to discuss a second parking garage and adding three or four new gates. Ms. Cameron said that while Nashville and Knoxville have been outpaced by their growth, Chattanooga builds its facilities and is then ready for growth.

The Authority was formed to take ownership and control of the airport in 1985. The city does not fund it or run it, though the mayor of Chattanooga does make appointments to the Board of Commissioners, Ms. Cameron said.

Aside from basic goals of safety and customer service, Ms. Cameron said, any growth must consider the airport’s long-term financial success. She credited this principal with the airport’s survival of 9/11 and the recession of 2008.

“That is how we sustained ourselves through the pandemic,” she said.

The airport has a growing general aviation arm, Wilson Air Center, a fixed-base operator which manages services for corporate aircraft.

“We know that it’s the front door to the community,” Ms. Cameron said.

Ms. Cameron told the group that West Star Aviation is the number one maintenance, repair and overhaul firm in the country. West Star employs 425 technically skilled people, and planes come from all over the world for body, paint and interior work in Chattanooga.

“That is an industry that was not in Chattanooga before,” Ms. Cameron said.

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