By JESSICA KONG
Arizona Sonora News
Pushing back against declines in airline service that have been seen at all mid-sized and smaller airports in the U.S. in recent years, Tucson International Airport is launching new flights. On Friday, Oct. 7, new nonstop service between Tucson and New York’s Kennedy International airport will begin, four days after the airport launches new flights to Hermosillo, Mexico, on Oct. 3.
The Hermosillo service starts Monday on the Mexican regional airline Aeromar. It and the New York resumption on American Airlines are the latest small scores in a game being played by Tucson and other non-hub airports as they employ aggressive marketing to bolster positions against trends in a domestic airline industry where major carriers have shifted more capacity to larger hub airports like Phoenix — where revenue per passenger is higher.
Flight reductions at Tucson have been occurring for several years, as they have at other mid-sized airports. Last year, Southwest Airlines reduced its daily flights between Tucson and Las Vegas to three from four, while Alaska Airlines downgraded a direct flight to Portland, Oregon, from year-round to seasonal.
David Hatfield, the director of business development and marketing at Tucson International, said that one good argument for persuading Aeromar to begin service in Tucson is that the Hermosillo market, with its relative proximity to the border, offers a mix of both tourism and business ties. “You look at a lot of the other flights that go into Mexico; it’s usually one or the other. We’re one that has both,” Hatfield said.
Airlines including Southwest, American, United, Delta and Alaska have all reduced passenger capacity in Tucson between 2012 to 2015, according to Tucson Airport Authority’s annual financial report.
Still, the airport works hard to attract some new business to offset the losses. Tucson International has worked with the travel guide Visit Tucson since 2008, and Hatfield says that the airport is also working closely with tourism agencies in Sonora, Mexico.
Since 2013, the airport also has collaborated on marketing strategies with the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce to other cities with some success.
The resumption of nonstop service to New York came about through about 18 months of joint efforts by a task force that included the airport, dozens of local businesses, the city of Tucson and the Metro Chamber.
To lure American Airlines to add the nonstop, Tucson had to put aside revenue guarantees to reimburse American Airlines if the new flights fail to reach agreed-on revenue levels. American Airlines also received discounts on landing fees and other subsidies.
“The airport has incentives,” Hatfield said. “In the case of New York, we have enlisted the help of the Metro Chamber of Commerce to organize businesses and tourism leaders and governments to help put together a fund that will basically offer minimum revenue guarantee to the airline.”
Tucson is seeking to attract other airlines as well.
Aeromar is a Mexican airline established in 1987.
“A lot of their business model up until now has been tended to develop routes that allow people to fly between cities without making connections in Mexico City,” Hatfield said. Los Mochis, located southeast of Hermosillo, is one of the cities that will benefit from Aeromar’s new service to and from Tucson airport because of both business and tourism.
Given the importance the thriving agriculture industry in Los Mochis, direct flights on Aeromar will have appeal in reducing the time it takes for traveling on business.
Another benefit is speedier access to Copper Canyon, a tourism site northeast of Chihuahua. Hatfield said that direct flights from Tucson airport to Los Mochis would help increase tourism in Copper Canyon.
“Los Mochis has no other international service to the U.S. at all,” he pointed out.
J. Felipe Garcia, executive vice president for strategic partnerships and Mexico marketing at Visit Tucson, said that Aeromar started service at Tucson airport because a significant amount of people were traveling back and forward between Tucson and Mexico. As they did with giant American Airlines, the incentives worked to lure little Aeromar. “The idea of this incentive program is to foster and promote new routes out of Tucson,” said Garcia.
For over a decade, major airlines have concentrated flying at mid-sized and smaller airports on regional airline subcontractors using small regional jets in a system designed to funnel passengers into the big hubs, often for connections elsewhere. Those subcontractors have consolidated, and at the same time the major airlines have sharply reduced dependence on regional jets, which hold from 40 to 80 passengers — but take up the same amount of gate space at a major airport gate as, say, a big 747 with over 200 passengers, many of them paying high fares to fly in business or first class to international destinations.
Looking for more choices in flights and in some cases better fares, some travelers from Tucson drive or use a service called Arizona Shuttle for transportation to fly out of Sky Harbor, Phoenix’s airport, instead of Tucson International Airport.
Lily Sevilla, a freelance interior designer in London, uses the Arizona Shuttle out of convenience to fly from Phoenix back to London. “That’s the reason why I pick the shuttle because it comes all the way from London directly to Phoenix. There’s no flight directly to London from Tucson,” Sevilla said.
Arizona Shuttle has three pick-up locations in Tucson. The main shuttle terminal is off of Speedway and west of Craycroft. For students needing to be picked up on campus, the nearest stop is on University next to Metro Wildcat on Park Avenue and Sixth Street. Passengers that live around the area of Ina Road can be picked up west of the I-10 on the south side. In Phoenix, the shuttle has three pick-up locations at Sky Harbor Airport near baggage claim. Terminal two, three, and four are the designated places to wait.
Francis Arnason, the reservation attendant at the Speedway location, says that the fare for shuttle service users can range from $41 if a customer books at least one day ahead of time and $45 on the day of travel. In order to get from Tucson to Phoenix, “it’s two hours and fifteen minutes from our corporate office on Speedway, two hours from the Park location, and it’s an hour and forty-five minutes from our Ina Road location,” said Arnason.
Tucson local Maria Yanez says her husband uses the Arizona Shuttle for a different reason.
“I’m waiting for my husband. My husband comes from Culiacán in Sinaloa, Mexico. He flew from Culiacán to Phoenix. He takes the shuttle from Phoenix to Tucson. So I came here to pick him up,” said Yanez.
Tucson International Airport convinced Alaska Airlines to start a nonstop to Seattle in order to reestablish service.
“Alaska Airlines first started flying to Seattle in 1985 and stayed until 1993. They returned in 2000 and have been here continuously since then,” said Hatfield.
The Tucson Chamber of Commerce wanted to show Alaska Airlines that Tucson airport was willing to take the plunge and share the risks with other airlines.
“Seattle is their home base. I think it goes back in the days when they were looking to come to sun destinations from their home base. And they started back before these new rules changed. They were doing it already,” said Hatfield.
Tucson International is trying to develop new services in Washington, D.C. and California cities such as Orange County, Burbank, Ontario, San Jose, Oakland and Long Beach. In efforts to restore older services from about three years ago, Tucson airport is reaching out to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“We’re going to have to reevaluate our priorities. Our priorities were New York, Mexico, and Portland,” Hatfield said.
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Jessica Kong is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Arizona and she plans to pursue graduate school in business after college. Born and raised in Phoenix, she enjoys traveling, hiking, working out, binge watching movies and constantly wishing she had a dog (maybe one day).