By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Aug. 12, 2009……….Tallahassee veterans may wish that it was as easy to fly into the state capital as it is to catch a flight to the U.S. Capital, but it will soon be less of a hassle for Capital frequent flyers to travel between the two.
The Tallahassee Regional Airport and U.S. Airways announced Wednesday a deal that will start non-stop flight service from Tallahassee to Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA). The service, which assistant director Philip Inglese said would likely begin in the first or second quarter of next year, will join American Airlines’ service to the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport in breathing new air into the sleepy airport on the southwest side of the capital city.
American, which began flying from Tallahassee to Dallas in June in addition to their flights from the capital to Miami, began a second non-stop daily flight last week. Inglese said the second flight was overdue.
“We have always believed that Dallas/Ft. Worth would be a good market for us,” Inglese told the News Service of Florida. “We didn’t go a month before they felt the demand warranted a second flight.”
Inglese added that the airport has been trying to land non-stop service to D.C. for at least three years, but was grounded by the economy and the fact that Reagan National has limited gate space.
Inglese said service into Reagan- the closest airport to the city of Washington, D.C. of the three metro facilities – would be more marketable to Tallahassee’s government passengers, who often deal with both the federal and the state legislative branches.
“This is something we’ve been working on for a long time, but it looks like the moon and stars have finally lined up,” he said. “We’ve been telling (U.S. Air) that considering the size of our airport, with at least one flight, they could get a good load.”
The Tallahassee airport averages between 720,000-750,000 passengers per year, but he said it would be at least six months before the impact of the Dallas service could be felt. But if the airport continues to avoid turbulence, Inglese said the new flights would not be the end of the service expansion.
“We’re always working on it,” he said. “We talk to all (the airlines). We don’t limit ourselves to one, so that if there are changes to their situation or ours, we’re already in front of them. We try to keep a lot of pokers in the fire.”
U.S. Air and American are two of five major commercial air carriers currently servicing Tallahassee, joining Continental, Delta and Northwest, though Inglese said the airport was also seeking others.
The U.S. Air service to Washington is part of a larger deal announced Wednesday with Delta airlines to swap some of Delta’s Reagan National gate rights with U.S. Air’s allotments at LaGuardia.
The news of the new capital flights was heralded Wednesday by Floridians for Better Transportation president Doug Callaway, who said he used to have to commute between Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. for a previous job and vividly remembers the difficulty.
“It’s a classic chicken and egg situation,” he said. “In the past, we have said if (the airlines) add more flights, they’ll have more customers and they have said ‘we’ll lower fares if you have more customers.’ That was hard to do, especially when people know they can drive a couple of hours to Jacksonville and Atlanta and get a decent fare.”
But Callaway said it was important that people be able to fly into Tallahassee so they could directly petition their government, a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, the Constitution was written before planes were in the sky, many of which fly over Tallahassee instead of landing.
“E-mail and phones make it easier, but more often than we would like to admit, it’s easy to get results from the government when you are face-to-face,” Callaway said.
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, also welcomed the news of the new flights Wednesday. During her campaign last fall, Vasilinda proposed eliminating the tax on commercial airline fuel for carriers that fly into the capital on flights that receive passengers at the Tallahassee airport.
“I had a bill to get better service within Florida, but any service we can get into Tallahassee helps,” Vasilinda said during an interview with the News Service of Florida. “We really need to grown the capital city and the service will come, but right now we’re kind of stuck.”
Vasilinda said she may introduce her plan again next year. The proposal would eliminate the 6.9 cents per gallon tax the state charges for fuel purchased in Florida on Tallahassee flights and save airlines about $64,000 per year. To qualify for the proposed tax exemption, airlines would have to have a ticket counter at the Tallahassee airport, regularly schedule flights to and from the capital city and embark and disembark passengers here.
Vasilinda added that new flight service to Tallahassee would not just benefit local passengers. Her fellow legislators and their constituents would be flying high too, she said.
“The people complaining (about the lack of flight service) are not only my constituents, but my colleagues and people trying to do business in the capital,” Vasilinda said. “It’s hell trying to get in here sometimes. It’s expensive and there are not as many flights. It’s the capital city of the fourth-largest state in the union. We need to have more access.”
But Inglese said the flight service skies would be even cloudier into an airport the size of Tallahassee’s if the Capitol were somewhere else.
“Because we’re a business community, we have key connections,” Inglese said. “Small airports around the country are losing service because they are not as fortunate. We may be at reduced levels, but we’re not going to completely lose service.”