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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

Airline begins flights from Toledo with low fares, high expectations

Tino Jiminez, left, of Adrian and his wife, Cindy Vallejo, far right, prepare to fly to Florida with son Phillip, nephew Gabriel Vasquez, receiving a hug from his mom, Beatrice, and niece Clara Vasquez. Tino Jiminez, left, of Adrian and his wife, Cindy Vallejo, far right, prepare to fly to Florida with son Phillip, nephew Gabriel Vasquez, receiving a hug from his mom, Beatrice, and niece Clara Vasquez.
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge

Tino Jiminez, his wife Cindy Vallejo, their son, and two cousins flew from Toledo Express Airport to Orlando, Fla., yesterday - a trip Mr. Jiminez said might not have been possible without American Trans Air.

“It was the cheapest deal we could find on the Internet,” the Adrian resident said of his itinerary on ATA and its Chicago Express Airlines feeder service from Toledo, which began flying yesterday. “All of us being together, we were able to afford it because their rates are low.”

Toledo Express Airport officials are confident that ATA's low fares will keep vacationers like Mr. Jiminez and his family coming back, while attracting greater numbers of business travelers than AirTran Airways did during a 19-month run at the local airport that ended April 28.

American Trans Air serves “a lot of business travel markets, which is important,” said Julie DeLong, the travel manager for Owens Corning.

Business travelers “are more familiar, more comfortable with ATA's business and background,” said Valerie Sondergeld of Central Travel.

For most of its 29-year history, ATA primarily has been a charter carrier. But 10 years ago, it began developing a scheduled airline based at a hub in Midway Airport in Chicago. More recently it bought Chicago Express Airlines and converted it to a feeder carrier, similar to what other major airlines have done with commuter airlines.

Today's Chicago Express “is the same in name only” to the airline that served Toledo between late 1993 and early 1995, said Gary Marsh, president of the airline. The local flights will use 34-seat Saab 340 turbo-prop planes.

In addition to Orlando, ATA destinations available from the Midway hub include Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, and Boston. Atlanta-based AirTran, which pulled its Toledo flights in late April on the grounds that business travel on the route was insufficient to sustain it, flies primarily in the Southeast and has no service west of the Central Time Zone.

Mr. Marsh said parent ATA's June 13 request for a $165 million loan guarantee from the federal government, under a program announced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, should not be seen as a red flag about the airline's fiscal health.

While larger airlines are retrenching, he said, ATA is expanding its routes to meet growing demand for discount air service.

“We're one of those airlines that happen to be in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Marsh said. ATA has studied the Toledo market and made “a long-term commitment” to fly here, he said.

Paul Toth, the airport director for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said the Toledo-Chicago route should do a robust business all by itself. Flights are scheduled to depart Toledo daily at 6:15 a.m., noon, 2:35 p.m., and 6:30 p.m., while Toledo flights leave Midway at 9:15 a.m., noon, 3:55 p.m., and 7:45 p.m.

“We lose 172,000 passengers a year to people to who go up to Detroit to fly to Chicago,” Mr. Toth said. “Now we give them a reason to fly out of Toledo Express and support the local economy.”

Mr. Toth expects ATA's low fares to have a ripple effect on other airlines' passenger volumes as they lower their fares to compete - just as occurred during AirTran's Toledo operations.

Fare checks after ATA announced its Toledo service plan in April showed just that: substantially lower fares on all carriers starting today.

Passenger business at Toledo Express was up 18.5 percent last year despite a four-month strike-related shutdown at Comair and the post-Sept. 11 travel slump.

Through May, travel through the local airport was down 1.6 percent, with the AirTran pullout and overall travel decline mitigated somewhat by Comair's return.



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