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Wanted: Airline, please call Naples

Naples Municipal Airport lost the last of its commercial airline service when US Airways Express left in June.

Published August 4, 2003

NAPLES - When Oscar Espejo went to work, it meant commuting from this South Florida community to Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Espejo would hop on a US Airways Express flight from Naples to Tampa, or a Comair flight to Orlando, and pick a Midway Airlines flight to his home base in North Carolina where his work day as a Midway pilot would begin.

Espejo lost his job when Midway went out of business after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he has been trying ever since to hook up with another airline. If he finds the job he's looking for, he'll have to find another way to work.

In June, the Naples Municipal Airport lost the last of its commercial airline service, and few airlines are looking to expand and pick up the slack.

Nearly all of the nation's airports, including Tampa and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, have experienced difficulties in maintaining airline service. But Naples is the first community in Florida to lose all service.

It joins 25 other airports around the country without an airline to call their own, and 24 more that have dropped to service from just one airline since 2001.

There are 429 commercial airports in the United States.

"I used to use Naples service three or four times a week," said Espejo, who is working as a handyman here until he can find employment as a pilot. "I think the service was valuable, and I'd like to have it back. I would definitely use it."

At first glance, there is something wrong with this picture.

According to the Collier County Economic Development Council, Naples is the second fastest-growing metropolitan market in the country. Collier County, which had fewer than 160,000 residents in 1990, had more than 275,000 in 2002. The population is projected to grow to nearly 550,000 by 2030.

Naples is an affluent community and it attracts wealthy tourists to its golf courses, beaches and marinas. The city has world-class resorts, and it is the gateway to the opulent life of Marco Island and the more rustic tourism of Everglades City.

Why would an airline not want to tap into this market?

"We're always looking at our markets and making efforts to right-size supply and demand, and in this case, demand didn't reach the required level," said Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman in US Airways' Virginia headquarters.

In some respects, the city is responsible for the airport's vacancy signs.

"From an airport perspective, talking about growth has been touchy because the community doesn't like growth," said Ted Soliday, the airport's executive director. "There is an attitude in this city that, "I'm here, so close the door and lock it.'

"And part of it can be blamed on the airport authority. If you're not marketing, if you're not aggressive, it's as if you're in a boat going upstream, but you're not paddling, so you're losing ground. There was a feeling among authority members at one time that because of the kind of place Naples is, they didn't have to work for air service. Wrong."

There were outside factors as well.

The city's growth hems in the airport, leaving it no room to expand. Homes and commercial property nestle right up to the airport's fences. Its two 5,000-foot runways are too short for most jetliners. Any carrier serving Naples has to fly smaller regional jets that carry 50 to 70 passengers or even smaller turboprops.

And then there is the matter of the new airport that opened 20 years ago in Fort Myers, about 30 miles to the north. Southwest Florida International Airport offers diverse, frequent and low-fare service. But the drive from downtown Naples can take from 45 minutes to more than an hour.

While the new airport isn't altogether convenient, it drew enough passengers to drain Naples.

In 1980, Naples Municipal had 195,000 arriving and departing passengers. In 1983, when Southwest Florida International opened, the number at Naples dipped to 123,000. Eventually, Naples passenger counts began growing again, reaching 175,000 in 1995.

But then airline economics began to tank. Naples' passenger counts plummeted to 117,000 in 2000 and to 59,000 in 2001. Most of the one-year decline was due to the end of American Eagle service between Naples and Miami.

"That was the biggest blow," said Soliday. "They were carrying 80,000 passengers a year. It was a business decision, something linked to an agreement with the pilots' union. It had nothing to do with 9/11."

But after Sept. 11, the situation grew dire for Naples' one remaining airline, US Airways Express, which flew three daily flights between Naples and Tampa.

"US Airways was having problems, going down fast," Soliday said. "They changed managers here three times in the six months after 9/11. They just weren't taking the airport seriously. The first flight they canceled was the one that flew the fullest, the early morning trip. It was the only flight that actually connected to something at the Tampa end."

So what can be done with an airport that has no airline service?

Some have suggested closing it.

Leonard Thornton, a former chairman of the airport authority, said the 732-acre site would make a wonderful park.

"Think of New York's Central Park or San Antonio's River Walk," Thornton said. "It's a good idea, a beautiful area and a good downtown site. The airport can't expand. Its runways can't be extended. Fort Myers was the logical place to put a big international airport, and when that happened, that was it for Naples."

But federal money that was used in Naples could be an issue, just as it is with the future of Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg. Naples has received more than $15-million in Federal Aviation Administration grants since the early 1980s.

"The grant agreement requires that an airport be kept operational for 20 years, and their last grant was made in 2002, so they're obligated to 2022," said Rusty Chapman, manager of the airports division of the FAA's southern region.

"From time to time airports lose service, and five years from now they might get it back. Last year, Naples had 138,000 (takeoffs and landings), and 120,000 of them were general aviation aircraft. That's a viable airport. It doesn't need to close."

Another local issue: Is Naples Municipal an airport that caters to the rich?

During the tourist season, the field is filled with small planes and corporate jets that have ferried top executives and wealthy private owners to conferences and vacations. Soliday said the airport can survive on that traffic by selling fuel. Still, he wants commercial service to return.

Soliday expects Cape Air to return to Naples in October with seasonal service to the Keys. And he is talking to a charter company, Sunrise Airlines, which aspires to become a scheduled airline. He also has put out feelers to Mesa Airlines in Phoenix, which flies regional jets for US Airways.

But Soliday acknowledged it isn't like having Southwest, Delta or Continental planes on the runways.

"We want service here to go to Atlanta or Charlotte," Soliday said. "We'll talk to anybody. We'll do the best we can, and we'll see what happens."

[Last modified August 4, 2003, 01:32:43]

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