The Baton Rouge Metro Airport is unveiling a strategic plan this afternoon that seeks to grow the local airport and eventually, it is hoped, bring more direct flights to Baton Rouge.
The plan, which is being presented to the BTR Board of Commissioners at its monthly meeting, focuses on growing the business travel segment of the market by stopping the so-called leakage of business travelers who opt to use New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport over BTR. The plan shows that 63% of Baton Rouge-based air travelers use airports other than BTR.
“The bad news is we have leakage,” says consultant John Snow, whose firm, Emergent Method, prepared the strategic plan. “The good news is we have leakage because that’s where our potential market is.”
The strategy involves a two-pronged approach: Encouraging more local business travelers to use BTR by enhancing airport services and improving the overall travel experience; and developing incentive packages that can be offered to airlines to bring more direct flight service to the market.
It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, and addressing both pieces of the puzzle simultaneously won’t be easy. The main reason travelers use New Orleans over Baton Rouge is because Baton Rouge doesn’t have enough direct flights. But airlines don’t want to start up new direct air service in a market like Baton Rouge unless they’re sure they have enough passengers to fill their planes to capacity.
“When you have just four main, large carriers there is not a lot of competition, so they can dictate when and where they are going to fly,” says Assistant Aviation Director Ralph Hennessy. “So if you want them to add a new flight, you’ve got to show them that it will make money.”
The strategic plan seeks to address that challenge in a couple of ways. The plan starts by making an economic case for the airport, noting its $1.1 billion annual economic impact on the local economy and the 4,500 direct and indirect jobs that come from it. The plan suggests that local businesses have a vested interest in supporting the airport because it is a local economic engine.
The plan also makes the argument that driving to New Orleans and flying from there doesn’t save as much time and money as is often assumed. The study argues there are hidden costs that range from $40 to as high as $400 per trip.
But the meat of the plan hinges on copying the proven successes of other midsized markets like Richmond, Virginia, and Memphis, which, like Baton Rouge, saw its airport usage decreasing. In recent years those cities have created public-private partnerships to rally around their airports and promote local usage. Those cities have also created incentive packages from third-party funding sources that include profit guarantees to airlines to minimize their risk in starting up new service.
“We have to work with the community, BRAC and BRAF, to help us put together the incentive packages,” says Airport Director Anthony Marino. “Airlines operate like any other business out there—they operate on yields and margins. It has to be profitable for them.”
The BTR Board of Commissioners does not need to take any action on the report. Marino says airport staff will begin implementing the recommendations in the plan immediately.