tampabay.com

Struggling airport awaits a new arrival

Allegiant Air, a discount airline catering to no-frills vacationers, could land at St. Petersburg-Clearwater.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published September 8, 2006


The Tampa Bay area's bad-luck airport is about to catch a break.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International has scheduled the announcement of major new airline service Wednesday, and all clues point to Allegiant Air, a fast-growing, Las Vegas-based discounter with big expansion plans.

The airline is looking for "dedicated individuals for our growing flight attendant team in St. Petersburg, FL," according to a posting on the employment page of its Web site. The company will host a job fair for applicants Saturday at a Holiday Inn Select hotel near the airport.

Airline enthusiasts on Internet bulletin boards and Web logs have reported plans for Allegiant to make St. Petersburg a "focus city" for travelers from the Northeast and Midwest.

Allegiant has been removing cables from an empty ticket counter at the airport, stated one online poster who identified himself as an employee at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International.

Airport director Noah Lagos declined Thursday to confirm or deny whether Allegiant would start flying to St. Petersburg.

Allegiant has scouted for a second Florida destination and is considering St. Petersburg among others, said Ponder Harrison, managing director of marketing and sales. The airline hasn't made a decision yet, he said.

"There are a number of cities we serve ... in the Midwest with a strong historical proclivity to travel to the west coast of Florida," said Harrison. "We don't believe (Orlando) is the only place in Florida we can operate profitably."

After hitting a record 1.3-million passengers in 2004, traffic plummeted at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International with the loss of its two biggest airlines.

Largo-based Southeast Airlines went out of business in November 2004. ATA left the local market in April 2005. Just fewer than 600,000 travelers used the airport in 2005. This year, the numbers could drop to fewer than 400,000, which hasn't happened since 1992.

Allegiant has found a niche selling cheap tickets and bargain travel packages to Las Vegas and Orlando from more than 40 small cities such as Billings, Mont.; Fargo, N.D.; and Chattanooga, Tenn.

The coach-only tickets come with no frills. Drinks and snacks cost from $2 to $6. Reserving a seat in advance will run you $11 each way. It costs $5 per flight to book a ticket over the phone, and there's no toll-free number.

Keeping costs low lets Allegiant offer one-way fares as cheap as $49 from Fayetteville, N.C., to Orlando.

The airline flies out of small cities to avoid competition. Bigger low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines like larger markets. Traditional major airlines do fly from smaller cities to Las Vegas and Orlando, but only with cramped regional jets and a change of planes at their hubs.

Allegiant typically flies only two to four times a week from feeder cities, a schedule that doesn't work for most business travelers.

"It's a magic carpet that takes you on your vacation," says Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo.

It's also a magic carpet that makes money in a tough industry. Allegiant posted a $7.3-million profit last year. Revenues of $132.5-million were up 47 percent over 2004.

Parent company Allegiant Travel has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a $100-million initial public offering to fund continued expansion.

Company brass have experience with fast-growing startups. Harrison, chief executive Maurice Gallagher and director Robert Priddy were all in on the ground floor of ValuJet.

The airline was crippled after one of its planes caught fire and crashed in the Everglades in 1996, killing all 110 passengers and crew members. ValuJet bought a small carrier called AirTran Airways, and adopted the name.

Since Aug. 24, Allegiant announced new flights to Orlando Sanford Airport from Fayetteville, N.C.; Kinston, N.C.; Shreveport, La.; Huntington, W.Va.; and Greenville, S.C.

Harrison wouldn't say if St. Petersburg was next. "Stay tuned," he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Q&A

Q. What happened to the biggest airlines?

A. Southeast Airlines, based in Largo, closed it doors shortly after Thanksgiving 2004. The airline was struggling with high fuel prices and competition from bigger discount airlines at Tampa International. ATA pulled out of the Tampa Bay market in April 2005. The carrier made a deal with Southwest to sell tickets on each other's flights, and Southwest already served the same cities from Tampa International.

Q. What airlines are left?

A. Only two. USA 3000 has 22 weekly flights to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Newark, N.J. And Skyservice Airlines has three weekly flights to Toronto.

Allegiant Air

Headquarters: Las Vegas

Hub cities: Las Vegas, Orlando Orlando Sanford International Airport.

Aircraft: 19 MD-83s (150 passengers), 2 MD-87s (130 passengers).

Employees: 616 full-time, 246 part-time.

Passengers, 2005: 1.2-million.

Revenue, 2005: $132.5-million.

Net Income, 2005: $7.3-million.

Source: Allegiant Air