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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Change is in the Air

From presidential visits to plane crashes, much has happened in the 84-year history of the Evansville Regional Airport. Yet most of the 365 travel days each year are routine. Families leave for spring breaks in Florida. Bachelor parties head to Las Vegas. Businesspeople, smartphones in hand, return home.

The last group intrigues Greg Wathen, president and CEO of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana. His interest was spurred by a 2011 economic report that gave Evansville “a specific roadmap where we can build job opportunities and a talent pool for corporations,” Wathen says.

The report, A Blueprint for Success, arrived after a six-month analysis from Garner Economics, an Atlanta-based research company that flew into the Evansville airport to conduct hundreds of site assessments on the River City. They were looking for Southwest Indiana’s biggest strengths and the barriers preventing investments. The consultants examined 71 “community factors” such as interstates, ports, Internet service, labor costs, and educational opportunities to name a few.

They also looked at the airport — the regional facility with one terminal, three runways, 1,008 parking spots, rocking chairs, and a long history in the city.

What else can it do for Evansville?

Doug Joest flies nearly a dozen times a year out of the Evansville airport. Most of those flights are for business purposes, and when he lands at other airports, he views the experience through the eyes of the manager of the Evansville Regional Airport. Joest snaps photos of operations at peer airports such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Fort Wayne, Ind., with his smartphone. He focuses on services he believes his airport can improve. Recently, Joest has been noting computer-charging stations. He wants to keep the business passengers, usually tied to their computers, from crouching on the floor next to power outlets at the Evansville airport. They should be able to connect from the comfort of a chair, he says.

Joest certainly knows the airport’s strengths, though. The small airport is comfortable, thanks in part to blue rocking chairs lining the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the runways. The parking lot also is small, security lines are short, and “we’re friendly,” says Joest. “Those are our strong points.”

Ashley Grace, a client partner for Data Logix who flies roughly 40 times per year from Evansville’s airport, agrees. “When I show up, the ticket agents know me by name,” he says. “I walk through TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and they know me.”

That sentiment is echoed by Frank Jung, senior consulting and technical manager for Innovative Consulting Group. He flies more than 100 days per year. “The agents know me and try to take care of me,” he says. “There are times when I was late and they’ve offered to park my car so I can go to the airplane.”

The weak points? Joest has heard about those, too: few flights and high ticket prices.

The airport has 169,000 departing domestic flights a year. Those departures take passengers generally four times per day to Detroit and Atlanta (increasing to five in May and June, respectively), four times per day to Chicago, and once daily to Dallas/Fort Worth. From one of these four hubs, flyers reach their next or final destination.

As for ticket prices, Joest points to the cost calculator on the airport’s website (www.evvairport.com). The online tool was developed when local airport officials wanted to compare ticket prices to four airports within a three-hour drive of Evansville (Louisville, Nashville, Indianapolis, and St. Louis). Here’s how it works:

A traveler looks up a ticket price on a search engine such as Priceline.com for flights from Evansville as well as from the aforementioned cities. Then, those prices are input into the cost calculator, which also factors in the cost of gas and parking, to get a true picture of travel costs from each of the five airports.

Recent comparisons showed a roundtrip ticket from Evansville to New York via Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey was $501. The Louisville International Airport was $464; Nashville International Airport, $280; Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, $237; and Indianapolis International Airport, $386. But factoring in the cost of gas required to drive to these airports and the price of a weekly parking pass, the cost calculator revealed the total price: Evansville, $536; Louisville, $733.54; Nashville, $617.20; St. Louis, $617.89; and Indianapolis, $799.15.

Joest wants to keep these costs competitive because the airport is “a tremendous asset to the community,” he says. “It allows people to get here and sustain jobs.”

The researchers at Garner agree with Joest. According to their report, the commercial air service is an attraction for the health and science industry, and the air parcel packages are musts for businesses shipping domestically and globally.

When Garner examined the Evansville airport infrastructure, the researchers noted a few interesting facts. The number of annual departing flights from Southwest Indiana (169,000) is just a fraction compared to the number in a similarly sized market such as Chattanooga (290,000 a year).

To up the offerings, Garner suggests the Evansville airport subsidize an airline, which the researchers called “the only realistic funding mechanism to allow this to occur.” The airport needs a public source of funding, they pleaded, and the cost for such an undertaking runs about $2 million a year. Where will this sustainable economic development fund come from? The report leaves that answer up to the city of Evansville.

“The report validates what airport authorities were already thinking,” Wathen says.

This information coincided with a marketing push from Joest as well. In a recent announcement that even made the headlines of USA Today, the airport authority declared it wanted a “wow factor” to increase the number of passengers by 10 percent (around 171,000 passengers flew to and from Evansville last year).

The current developing strategic plan still faces a series of board meetings before action can begin. Yet one new development is taking off: the installation of jet bridges. Joest pursued the project, a recommendation of Garner’s, before the report surfaced. The project requires several structural components including new doorways, power units, concrete piers, and an electrical circuit upgrade. The deadline is set for this fall. For Joest, the jet bridges were a safety matter — they remove passengers from the runway and provide quicker access to the terminal.

The runways will receive a facelift as well. A federally mandated, multimillion-dollar project shifts the airport’s main runway away from U.S. Highway 41 toward the northeast by 2015. Construction has started on the adjustment of surrounding roads to accommodate the move.

It’s further proof that the time to improve the airport is now, Wathen argues. “I know that this might be heresy to some people, but this is more critical than I-69.”

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