BTR trying to convince airlines it’s ready for more flights

    Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport officials said today they are positioning the airport to capture new flights to places like Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, but potential roadblocks like uncertainty and airlines that have become more strategic in their expansions in recent years could stand in their way.

    Speaking at the first ever “State of the Airport” address at the airport’s terminal in north Baton Rouge, interim airport director Ralph Hennessy said he is making headway with landing Southwest, one of the nation’s largest airlines. Currently, United, American and Delta are the only airlines operating at BTR.

    But Hennessy said he is “pretty confident” the airport will land at least one new destination in the next year or two. BTR is trying to convince airlines it is still profitable to expand service here, despite being overshadowed by New Orleans, which has the largest airport in the state.

    “You have to show (airlines) they are going to make money,” Hennessy said. “Every time an airline brings a new flight to Baton Rouge, it’s a $10 million investment.”

    To do that, Jim Caldwell, the airport’s marketing and air service development manager, said he is using the addition of a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, as a model for pitching airlines to add flights here.

    In 2010, U.S. Airways—now owned by American Airlines—added the Charlotte flight at the Baton Rouge airport, despite the larger Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport already offering that destination.

    Since then, the market size has grown by nearly 300% for the local flight.

    Caldwell is also working to convince airlines that even though many Gulf Coast cities are reeling from the oil bust, with passenger numbers suffering at those airports, Baton Rouge has not been affected. Airport statistics show a drop in total passenger traffic at BTR of 2% from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016.

    By comparison, Dickinson, North Dakota, dropped 63%, and Lake Charles fell 24%. Baton Rouge, meanwhile, expects growth in 2017, with more seats and hopefully more airlines and destinations.
    “We always want more service,” Caldwell said. “We’ll never stop seeking more.”

    Airlines want to expand in cities that are growing rapidly, allowing the airlines themselves to grow with them, Caldwell said. Baton Rouge is showing signs of that, and Baton Rouge officials are showing off economic development like the IBM headquarters and demand for flights from government and university workers.

    Hennessy also laid out the 15-year plan for capital projects at the event, which includes a planned rerouting of Plank Road to accommodate Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for clearing space near runways. Currently, Plank Road passes near the end of one of the runways, and if the FAA approves a master plan, it will likely be rerouted to create more space by 2021.

    Hennessy said he is not sure when the airport will land more airlines, and when current airlines will decide to add more flights, but added Baton Rouge is in a good position for growth in the coming years.

    “I’ve seen air service initiatives take three months, and I’ve seen them take three years,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

    —Sam Karlin

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