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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2001

Keep-AirTran campaign lags

Area businesses have pledged a sixth of the money needed to ensure a low-cost carrier remains at Toledo Express Airport as part of a campaign to keep fares low.

Eight days into the campaign, eight companies have pledged a total of $350,000 to a travel bank for AirTran Airways, said Kathy Tiegland, a Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce consultant.

While optimistic the rest of the $2 million can be raised by Nov. 1, she and other advocates said yesterday they are up against a corporate culture that often favors using big-name carriers or Detroit Metropolitan Airport, even if AirTran flights cost much less and often take the same amount of time.

Only a year after its arrival, AirTran may pull its three daily flights to Atlanta because not enough business travelers use them. Because business travelers book late, and at higher fares, they are key to airlines turning profits. If AirTran leaves, airport officials say all fliers can expect higher fares from Toledo.

Under the travel bank program, companies pay at least $2,000 and get a special credit card in that amount to use for AirTran tickets. Any unused money after a year is turned into AirTran vouchers, which are good for another year.

The chamber has hired a Eugene, Ore., consultant to set up the program, and they held their first meetings yesterday to try to sell AirTran to business leaders.

In the last six months, Toledo was the third worst of AirTran's 34 markets in a key industry barometer: average revenue per airplane seat, per mile of flight. Bill Howard, AirTran's sales director, said there is neither a date set for pulling service nor a make-or-break figure to keep service in Toledo. But by early next month, the airline needs to see “positive movement” in the travel bank program, he said.

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates the airport, has been helping with the campaign, but board members said it's been a tough sell.

Some corporations have frequent-flier programs with bigger airlines, like Delta, and don't want to switch to AirTran, even if fares are lower. Some executives prefer direct flights out of Detroit, citing time constraints.

But Toledo Express director Paul Toth said it's often just as fast to take connecting flights out of Toledo because the airport is a shorter drive, with closer parking and quicker security screening.



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