Nearly two-thirds of travelers who live near enough to use the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport shun it to fly out of other airports instead — usually the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport — according to a new airport economic impact study.
The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport on Tuesday released the study, which reveals new insights about the airport’s reach and its estimated $1.1 billion total economic output in Baton Rouge. But to ensure the airport’s long-term success, persuading the 63 percent of people each day who choose other airports before Baton Rouge will be an important hurdle to overcome.
Airport officials said they see the statistic as both welcome news and a challenge.
The glass-half-full look at it is that the Baton Rouge Airport now has identified a hefty base of 2,615 potential customers daily to try to lure away from New Orleans. That figure includes not only local people traveling to New Orleans — fliers who live within 50 to 100 miles of Baton Rouge — but also travelers from more far-flung locations who drive past the Capital City to fly out of Louis Armstrong.
That means airport officials will need to convince these people now making long commutes, in many cases for cheaper deals, that there are reasons to begin their flights closer to home. Persuading people to choose Baton Rouge also would be a key component to enticing airlines to add more flights.
“The community has to know and understand, if they were staying here, that service would be here,” said Assistant Director of Aviation Ralph Hennessy.
The perception of cheaper, more available flights and more direct flights out of New Orleans is one of the biggest reasons travelers stray, the study from consulting group Emergent Method found. Travelers also enjoy the presence of Southwest Airlines in New Orleans, along with the added leisure options at that airport.
The study shows it can be between $42 and $160 cheaper for a traveler to hop on a New Orleans flight rather than a Baton Rouge one when traveling to Dallas, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Houston and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Though the perceived cost gap is often real, the analysis says it usually does not account for the business traveler’s loss of time or productivity when he or she spends more than an hour driving to the Crescent City.
The consultants calculated that additional out-of-pocket costs for traveling to New Orleans — including gasoline, parking, vehicle wear-and-tear and more — range from $26 for someone driving from Ascension to $98 for someone driving from Zachary.
“We need New Orleans in our region,” said Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport Director Anthony Marino. “It’s just we’ve got to recapture that leakage.” The study showed that Baton Rouge loses 1,147 fliers daily who live within 50 miles of the airport to New Orleans.
Airports nationwide are struggling to retain flights as airlines slash services. Baton Rouge has seen 13.64 percent fewer flights in a snapshot comparison from this summer versus 2011.
Baton Rouge has not been squeezed as hard as some other markets, and larger planes have meant that the seat capacity loss is only down by about 4 percent. But such challenges have caused airport officials to re-examine what they do well and what they must improve as they enter a new master planning phase.
The economic impact study says the airport has a solid contribution to the city and state’s economies. It projects that the airport creates 4,748 in direct and indirect jobs, $386.8 million in economic value added to the economy and $19.5 million in state tax revenue. Emergent Method calculated that the airport has $1.1 billion in total economic output, which combines direct and indirect economic impact from the airport and its business park.
Marino said he was surprised and encouraged by the economic impact, particularly because the airport doesn’t rely on any local tax dollars for operations.
But in order to continue improving upon it, Emergent Method suggested that the airport carve out a niche of premium service for business travelers.
One challenge in doing so is overcoming is a new trend of incentives and revenue guarantees, which give airlines a safety net when they move into a new market. Wooing airlines to bring more flights to Baton Rouge means that the airport needs to put up money and incentives to make the flights a reality.
The Baton Rouge airport already does some of this, by waiving fees and putting up some economic incentives for airlines. But the strategies have become commonplace across the industry, according to Marino.
“Airports are like everyone else,” he said. “You’ve got to show them that you can equal or better the yield. The airline is saying, ‘show me some incentive from your community.’ ”
Other cities are upping the ante by tapping into their business communities to put up third-party incentives for airports. The Baton Rouge Airport is hoping to walk down that same path by partnering with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Louisiana Economic Development.
If BRAC and LED are successful in creating revenue guarantees and incentives for airlines, Baton Rouge airport officials figure that local companies might modify their travel policies or be more willing to move to Baton Rouge. The partnerships have been successful at airports in other cities, including the Richmond International Airport, the Memphis International Airport and the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
LED and BRAC both worked to strengthen Baton Rouge’s air travel market this past summer, in hopes of keeping chemical maker Albemarle Corp. headquartered in Baton Rouge. Albemarle announced in August that it was relocating its corporate headquarters to Charlotte, North Carolina, and partially cited Charlotte’s airport and direct flights to Frankfurt, Germany, as one of its reasons for moving.
Other changes the study recommends are more minor.
For example, some travelers who were interviewed during the economic impact study complained about the slow WiFi, even though it’s free. The airport is speeding it up, and the WiFi should become faster in the next few weeks.
The airport also is starting an ambassador program in early 2016 where airport employees are available around the airport to help travelers, especially when flight irregularities and delays occur.
Though those problems usually fall under the responsibility of the airlines, airport leaders expect that the ambassadors will be able to help alleviate problems and even reach out to those complaining on social media.