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Published: Thursday, 12/6/2001

AirTran takes case to business leaders

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

But when the company is buying the tickets, frequent-flier miles seem to become more important than price, the AirTran Airways chief executive said, and the seats AirTran sets aside for business travelers go unsold.

During a closed-door meeting yesterday morning at the Toledo Club, Mr. Leonard made his airline's case to about 30 local business leaders: The carrier that has made Toledo Express Airport thrive this year will stay only if it gets its fair share of Toledo's corporate travel dollar.

While Mr. Leonard estimated that fair share at 5 percent of the market, he said there is no deadline for reaching the goal.

“We're optimistic we'll get the support we're looking for,” Mr. Leonard said later in the morning, before boarding one of his company's flights from Toledo to Atlanta.

AirTran, a discount airline that began service between Toledo and Atlanta in October, 2000, carried 58,226 passengers during the first 10 months of this year, making it the busiest airline at Toledo Express.

Its presence is credited with fueling fare competition that resulted in volume gains for other airlines and an overall 27.2 percent increase in outbound travelers through October, despite declines in the most recent two months.

But AirTran officials have told local leaders that the Toledo route is vulnerable to cancellation unless a higher volume of business travelers, who usually buy tickets less than a week before departure and pay relatively higher fares, fly it in greater numbers.

The Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce is coordinating a “travel bank” campaign during which local businesses are being asked to pledge travel dollars to AirTran for the next two years. While the chamber initially set a Nov. 1 deadline for receiving pledges, that date was later pushed back to Nov. 30 and then dropped.

Mark V'Soske, the chamber's president, said the meeting was “good education for some of the key people” in the Toledo corporate sector, with Mr. Leonard's presence offering an important opportunity for “peer to peer” discussion among chief executives.

Mr. Leonard did not specify what percentage of Toledo's corporate travel market currently flies AirTran, but said the Toledo route is “very close to break-even.

“A few more passengers, especially high-yielding ones, would make all the difference.”

Tony Shelbourn, vice president of corporate relations for Dana Corp., which along with the chamber co-sponsored the meeting, said Dana is “certainly looking very seriously” at buying into the “travel bank,” but has yet to decide its level of participation.

AirTran, he said, has “done a lot to reduce the cost of air travel at Toledo Express Airport, and like any good company, we're looking for cost competitiveness.”

James F. White, Jr., vice chairman of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board of directors, said that the meeting squarely placed the fate of AirTran's Toledo service in the hands of the area's corporate travelers. AirTran seems “very interested in Toledo” and its 5 percent goal is a “realistic proposition,” Mr. White said.

“They have to make up their mind whether a quality, low-cost air carrier is beneficial to this community,” Mr. White said.

“Hopefully, I was persuasive today in convincing people that [AirTran] is a good investment in their own companies and in their city,” Mr. Leonard said.



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