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Published: Saturday, 10/1/2005

Local travelers scramble as airline shuts

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For the more than two years it flew between Toledo and a secondary airport near Orlando, Fla., TransMeridian Airlines lured thousands of sun-seeking vacationers into its jets with bargain airfares - making it the busiest single destination for travelers from Toledo Express Airport.

But during that span, the price of jet fuel more than tripled and the bargain airfares became an albatross that forced TransMeridian to cease all operations late Thursday.

"People got used to being able to fly to Florida and back for $160," Paul Toth, director of Toledo Express, said yesterday. "If someone posted a fare over $200, people complained that it was a rip-off, and they just didn't go."

Not being able to raise its fares enough to cover operating costs is likely what led to TransMeridian's shut down, Mr. Toth and other airline and travel officials told The Blade.

The shutdown has forced travelers who booked Christmas vacations or winter getaways through TransMeridian to scramble for alternatives.

"We had a lot of people thinking they were doing the right thing by planning ahead and making their Christmas or Easter reservations," said Jani Miller, president of Central Travel in Maumee, who estimated that between 20 and 25 clients had advance bookings with the defunct airline. "We have large families now scrambling to find an alternative, and it's hard."

But Ms. Miller agreed that with rising fuel costs, "every airline is in dire straits these days."

"You've got to have a business model that lets you make money on what you're selling," she said.

TransMeridian announced it was ceasing operations after it "was unsuccessful in negotiations to restructure its debt." The airline advised ticketholders to contact their travel agents, if any, or the credit-card company with which they paid for their tickets.

"The management of TransMeridian would like to thank all of its customers for their patronage and continued support over the years," said the airline's statement, which was posted yesterday in place of the entire TransMeridian Web site. "The airline is now working on efforts to assist employees affected by the shutdown."

Among travelers left in the lurch was Mr. Toth, who had a reservation on the morning flight to Sanford (Fla.) International Airport. He canceled the trip and plans to drive to Tampa for a long weekend getaway sometime in the near future.

In the meantime, Mr. Toth was in his office yesterday at Toledo Express, helping arrange a deal with Allegiant Air, which for $50 one-way will honor TransMeridian reservations through Nov. 21. The catch: Travelers must be willing to depart from cities Allegiant serves - the closest to Toledo being two hours away in Lansing - and seating will be on a stand-by basis. Allegiant's offer is of no help to those seeking replacement Thanksgiving or Christmas bookings.

Mr. Toth said he had heard through industry grapevines that TransMeridian was looking to refinance its debt, and every day that passed without word of success was a day of increased anxiety about the carrier's future. Nonetheless, he said, the abrupt shutdown came as a shock.

Along with TransMeridian, Toledo Express has lost US Airways Express and ATA Connection flights in the last 14 months.

Passenger volume has been down by nearly 20 percent for most of the year, and the loss of TransMeridian is virtually certain to deepen that decline. Fares like TransMeridian's cause people to take trips they otherwise wouldn't, said Michael Boyd, an airline industry analyst based in Evergreen, Colo.

"For a carrier like this one, that lives and dies on discretionary travel and is very price-sensitive, they can't really afford to raise their fares too much," Mr. Boyd said.

Toledo is "way too strong economically" to be at risk of losing all of its commercial air service, but for those who travel primarily on low-fare carriers, the analyst said, "it's going to be hard to go there" because the market is too small and Detroit is too close.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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