Within days of a new charter operator launching regional Gulf Coast flights from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, a low-fare, high-fees carrier announced plans to immediately begin nonstop flights to Las Vegas and add Los Angeles by next year.
While New Orleans-based GLO’s daily nonstop flights to Shreveport; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee; are designed to lure business travelers, budget carrier Spirit Airlines is eyeing vacation passengers.
The recent service expansions highlight two areas where local airport officials and industry experts predict the New Orleans airport has room to grow: targeting budget-conscious leisure travelers as well as underserved regional areas that will attract businesspeople and others eager for an alternative to driving or multiple-stop flights.
Even more recently, the New Orleans airport unveiled its 50th nonstop destination: Another budget carrier, Allegiant Air, will begin flying to Pittsburgh in February, with fares starting at $39.
After Southwest Airlines and Spirit expanded local flights in 2013, the New Orleans airport became the fastest-growing facility in the country in terms of its passengers count, according to Airports Council International statistics.
A year later, it ranked No. 4 nationwide, according to an Airline Weekly analysis.
Seth Kaplan, a managing partner at the industry publication, said several anomalies separated New Orleans from the top spot. Namely, that Dallas’ Love Field Airport, which was No. 1, had started offering more long-haul flights after a federal law prohibiting them was repealed in late 2013. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, at No. 3, is steadily breaking its own records amid an ongoing turf war between Delta Air Lines and Seattle-based Alaska Airlines.
In 2014, New Orleans’ passenger count rose almost 7 percent, said Kaplan, who predicts the airport’s growth will slow somewhat by next year. “Not surprisingly, after you’ve had growth like that, it would level off at some point,” he said.
He credited low fuel prices for spurring expansions among no-frills carriers like Spirit and Frontier Airlines. “When you have those airlines growing rapidly and looking for places to allocate that growth, and you have a market like New Orleans, it’s kind of perfect for them,” he said.
This year, the New Orleans airport is on track to break the 10 million-passenger mark, its highest in the airport’s nearly seven-decade history, said Iftikhar Ahmad, who has served as aviation director in New Orleans since 2010. That number is up 36 percent from six years ago.
The New Orleans airport offers 50 nonstop flights, including four international destinations. It handled about 80 percent of the state’s passengers in 2014.
Nationwide, the airport’s ranking has seesawed in the past decade due to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. In 2005, it was No. 40. After Katrina, it fell to No. 56.
By last year, the airport had climbed to No. 37. The goal, Ahmad said, is to get into the top 30, a select group that handles at least 1 percent of the nation’s passengers.
A key to accomplishing that goal will be the airport’s new three-story, 650,000-square-foot terminal, a $650 million project that will replace the existing facility. The terminal is slated to open in time for the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2018.
The terminal is designed to be about half the size of the current facility, which will mean lower maintenance and cooling costs, but offer a more efficient layout. That will help increase revenue from auxiliary sources, the thinking goes, to keep fees charged to airlines low and ultimately draw more flights to the Crescent City.
Airport officials hope the new terminal will allow them to add more international flights, a business that has largely left New Orleans since the 1970s in favor of Houston.
“I would not tell you that I would like to see one airline add more service than the other. We’re equal opportunity,” Ahmad said. “They all have their niche business. They’re not the same flavor. Some folks are looking for really cheap price and no-frills, some folks are looking for frills and they’re not that sensitive to the price.”
For years, airport officials and business leaders have been in talks with international carriers like British Airways about adding regular service to an overseas destination such as Frankfurt, London or Paris.
If that panned out, the service would likely offer three or four flights a week, said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group.
“As long as the demand through the airport continues to generally go up, then it is just a question of when, not if,” Hecht said of adding international flights.
That setup is in line with what Copa Airlines has offered. This year, Copa started nonstop service four times per week between New Orleans and Copa’s hub at Tocumen International Airport in Panama. The route gives local travelers access to more than 55 destinations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
It also opens the door to other possibilities. For example, an expansion at Ochsner Health System could spur Latin American citizens to travel to New Orleans for medical treatment, Ahmad said.
Eventually, additional flights may be added to GLO’s three regional destinations. The company uses 30-passenger Saab 340B aircraft operated by a third party, Corporate Flight Management Inc.
GLO’s founder and CEO Trey Fayard said he chose the destinations after extensive research, which included driving to dozens of cities and airports in the South to gauge the potential demand for the service. He has ideas for potential new routes, but declined to elaborate on specifics.
Ahmad, the airport director, believes GLO is choosing the “right time and right business model” to begin offering the regional service, coming as many larger airlines have gotten out of the game.
“I think they’re coming in with eyes wide open, but in the end, marketing is going to be key,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Fayard agrees.
“There’s a vacuum there that’s being created by all of the mergers,” he said on a recent morning as he stood at the back of his planes while nearby staff sorted through bottles of water and snacks. “Smaller, secondary cities in the Gulf and mid-South are just losing … service left and right.”
Fayard expects that local business travelers who need to go somewhere like Shreveport will jump at the chance to get there — and back — in an 81-minute flight, even if it’s more expensive than a commercial flight.
GLO’s service to Memphis has started and will begin in Shreveport this month. Promotional one-way fares to Shreveport start at $189, including taxes. On weekdays, GLO will offer two flights per day to each city.
When his first plane landed at the New Orleans airport last month, dozens of airline workers and airport staff greeted it on the runway, an arrival that Fayard had worked toward for six years.
“When you have an idea, you make an announcement, you have a business plan, that’s wonderful,” he said, “but when it shows up, it’s real.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.