In the wake of Anthony Marino’s announcement that he’s stepping down Oct. 14 from his post at the helm of the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport after more than 20 years, I called Metro Councilman and Airport Commissioner Trae Welch to ask about the board’s plans to replace the outgoing director.
In the course of our conversation, Welch confirmed the board will conduct a national search for Marino’s successor. He also praised the job Marino has done at the airport and pointed out, in all seriousness, that BTR, as the airport is known in the industry, has received many national awards over the years.
I replied, somewhat less seriously, that, yes, the airport is efficient, appealing from a design perspective and far more pleasant to use than most other airports because there just aren’t many passengers or flights to muck the place up.
No vacationers clad in neck pillows and yoga pants crowding the check-in counter. No throngs of sock-footed business travelers shuffling in silent indignation through a TSA body scan.
He didn’t appreciate my humor, and proceeded to tell me how the airport, in fact, has a lot going on.
“People think the airport is a place to catch a plane to go on vacation,” he said. “It’s about so much more.”
This may come as surprise to you. It did to me. I was one of those who labored, mistakenly, under the impression that an airport exists primarily to serve the traveling public, whether for business or pleasure.
Businesses are governed by cost controls just like individuals. What’s more, in the business world time is money and the extra time it takes to make connections when flying to or from BTR—which is almost inevitable—invariably outweighs the convenience of proximity that the local airport affords.
But Welch explained that the airport is a business enterprise and a landlord with a variety of tenants. He is not technically incorrect. BTR is an economic engine in the local economy that spawns some 4,500 direct and indirect jobs, and has an estimated annual economic impact of $1.1 billion. It’s self-sustaining and doesn’t take any public tax dollars. Its Aviation Business Park tenants include a diversified mix such as Coca Cola Bottling Co., All Star Chevrolet North and ABC Auction Broadcasting. And its hangar space is filled to capacity, as the number of private planes and corporate jets that use the airport has increased along with the number of entities that service general aviation.
Indeed, viewed from the perspective of airport-as-enterprise, the Baton Rouge Metro Airport is a success. It has a lot going on.
But the fact remains that the airport is not just a business enterprise. It’s supposed to be a place where travelers can catch a commercial flight to the destination of their choice. This has been its primary mission—at least that’s the public perception of its mission—and in this respect BTR’s track record isn’t quite as successful.
For the past three years, the number of passengers flying through BTR has decreased. In 2015 alone, passenger count declined more than 4%. That’s because a lot of those passengers—63%—are opting instead to use larger, neighboring airports, namely, New Orleans’ MSY, which has more flights and better prices.
BTR officials and the consultants who conducted the study have pretty much ceded the vacation traveler market to New Orleans, acknowledging that they cannot compete with the number of destinations New Orleans’ airport serves. They have tried, however, to make the case that Baton Rouge business travelers are better off flying from BTR and, indeed, almost have a moral imperative to support the local airport.
This argument is hard to swallow. Businesses are governed by cost controls just like individuals. What’s more, in the business world time is money and the extra time it takes to make connections when flying to or from BTR—which is almost inevitable—invariably outweighs the convenience of proximity that the local airport affords.
Granted, you can’t really fault the airport for trying to view things through a different lens. It’s up against some pretty formidable industry odds. Just four airlines now control roughly 86% of the domestic market, while slightly more than one-third of the airports in the continental U.S. generate 97% of domestic air service demand. Those airports are the big ones in the major markets, where it’s most profitable for airlines to operate, and airlines now have all the leverage. Even markets much larger than Baton Rouge are scrambling to get new air service to meet rapidly growing demand. Cities like ours don’t have much of a chance.
So maybe the airport should just stop trying. Maybe it should continue to focus on doing what it does well, servicing its general aviation and business park tenants, and give up on commercial air service altogether.
Perhaps the resources of the local business community should be redirected into a more organized effort to funnel as many Capital Region passengers as possible to the New Orleans airport, because increased utilization is the only real way to incentivize airlines to add more direct flights to a market. Perhaps more efforts should be focused on making the long-envisioned passenger rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge a reality. That way, travelers whose companies don’t have their own corporate jets could more easily access the New Orleans airport.
And perhaps the national search for the new airport director should focus on finding someone who is better at building regional partnerships and thinking outside the box than at cobbling together two-bit incentive packages to waive landing fees that won’t do much good anyway.
After all, wouldn’t it be better to have one really good airport in south Louisiana than two that are struggling?