The same week the Baton Rouge Metro Airport released a new study designed to measure its passenger “leakage” and explore ways to address the problem, business leaders in New Orleans confirmed their yearlong effort to secure a coveted nonstop flight between New Orleans and London had fallen through. British Airways, with whom business leaders had been negotiating, decided instead to send its newest 787 to San Jose, California, where, as GNO Inc.’s Michael Hecht conceded, “the business market is more developed than in southeast Louisiana.”
The timing of the two airport stories was coincidental, but they’re not unrelated: Southeast Louisiana has two struggling airports within 90 miles of each other, though one is struggling more than the other. New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport, abbreviated MSY in the industry, is trying to become a truly international airport, and maybe even a hub one day. Baton Rouge, or BTR, is just trying to increase the number of direct flights it offers. It has four.
In an era of airline consolidations and increased competition among airports nationwide, can we grow both airports? Should we even try?
It’s a difficult question, and Baton Rouge will have to do some soul searching to come up with answers. The BTR study, which was prepared by consulting firm Emergent Method, essentially lays its findings at the feet of the local business community and looks there for help solving its problems.
The problems are considerable. Some 63% of Baton Rouge-based air travelers—those who live within a 50-mile radius of the Baton Rouge Airport and, therefore, should be using it—are opting to use the New Orleans airport instead.
BTR officials view this as a dark cloud with a silver lining: They see an opportunity to recapture a share of that market by going after the business travelers who are “leaking” to New Orleans and convincing them to make BTR their default airport.
“The bad news is we have leakage,” says consultant John Snow of Emergent Method. “The good news is we have leakage because that’s where our potential market is.”
The report suggests targeting the business community with a three-pronged approach. First, create a culture of service at the airport—faster WiFi connections, better lighting and signage, customer service ambassadors—that will enhance the overall passenger experience of traveling through BTR.
Second, engage the business community through education and outreach. Make the case that driving to New Orleans to fly out of MSY doesn’t necessarily save as much time and money as is often assumed. (One could argue this point, but the report has data to support its assertion). Meet with industry leaders to find out which direct flights their companies and sectors need and get commitments from them that airport officials can bring back to the airlines when negotiating for more service.
Finally, and this is the biggie, create some sort of mechanism by which financial incentives—profit guarantees, for instance—could be offered to airlines that take the risk of adding new direct flights to the market. Where the funding for these incentives would come from isn’t entirely clear, but the report mentions “partnerships,” which means private sources.
“We have to work with the community, BRAC and BRAF, to help us put together the incentive packages,” says Baton Rouge Metro 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 study goes on to point out that BTR has a $1.1 billion economic impact on the area, with some 4,500 direct and indirect jobs. The implication seems to be that the business community has a vested interested in, if not a moral imperative, to support the local airport and help drive up demand for more flights.
But would it make more sense to demonstrate that demand in New Orleans, where fares are less expensive and options more plentiful?
No, says the business community establishment, which professes to support the airport. BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp says there is a need for both airports and that while MSY should concentrate on growing its international service, BTR can provide a valuable service as a regional airport. He applauds BTR for its recent study and says, “It’s great to see the airport laying out a road map for taking on those big challenges.”
Hecht in New Orleans, who has said the Baton Rouge members of the Super Region Committee helped work with New Orleans in trying to secure the London flight, agrees there is a place and a need for BTR.
“Absolutely,” he says. “You can look around the country and find numerous examples where there is one international airport and a significant regional airport that serves local markets.”
Convincing average business travelers in Baton Rouge that supporting BTR is in their best interest, however, won’t be easy. Consider a sampling of online comments posted on Daily Report after the story about the airport study appeared.
“I’ll pay extra to drive to (New Orleans) for a direct flight,” wrote one reader. “I’ve missed too many connections in Houston because of late or cancelled flights from BTR.”
“I go to NOLA for direct flights not to save money,” wrote another. “I have spent way too many nights at the Houston airport because I could not get home to BTR for various reasons.”
Wrote a third: “The costs and flight schedules out of BTR are prohibitive.”
Airport officials have their work cut out for them.