Plattsburgh Airport proves location is everything

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Location, location, location

Plattsburgh Airport in upstate New York is taking advantage of state and federal funds and its location close to the US-Canadian border to attract passengers from Canada who are seeking warmer climes

Location is all important in retail, in restaurants and increasingly in airports. That's because an airport that has some marketing savvy can turn a geographic advantage into a strong selling point. Take, for instance, the Plattsburgh airport in upstate New York, not far from the Canadian border. Plattsburgh is getting itself a place on the map with some big bucks from the state and the feds - enough to help it attract service from a new carrier. The bilingual airport is positioning itself to draw cold Quebecers from north of the border, "Snowbirds" who should be lured by its new flights to Florida and by their increased purchasing power as the US dollar tumbles and is at long last at one-on-one parity with the Canadian dollar. The 3.5 million people who live in and around Montreal have long driven as far south as Florida, but gas prices are making that a dying tradition.

Canadians have long complained about limited access to real low fares competition, especially in the eastern part of the dominion, and airports on or near the border have been able to turn this thirst for discounts into real passengers. At Buffalo, the Niagara Frontier Transportation ­Authority has been successful in encouraging Canadians to join local residents for flights operated by Southwest Airlines as well as JetBlue Airways.

But here, in the far less populated north woods of upstate New York, it was a tougher sell. Calling it "Montreal's US Airport", the promoters of the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base just won the promise of $2 million from New York State's governor, Eliot Spitzer, to support the retrofit of an Air Force nose-dock hangar. In May, the facility won $15 million in federal grants under a programme that helps communities convert former ­military bases to civilian use.

All in all, some $30 million in federal funds, won in part through the support of New York's junior senator, Hillary Clinton, who sits on the defence committee that determines such spending, helped fund the conversion and construction of a new 32,000 square foot (2,973 square metre) terminal. Combined with a 12,000 foot runway and a 12 million square foot area of apron built for the B-52 bombers of the Cold War era, the airport has plenty of room.

Upstate New York has long been a region in which employment has been seasonal and a political football. For the politicians, Plattsburgh is part of the geographical challenge that has always made the Empire State a difficult one to win in for a "downstate" liberal from the big city: it may be easy for Chuck Schumer, the senior senator, or Hillary Clinton to win Manhattan, but the farther away they are from New York City, the more conservative the voters are and the more concerned they are with bread and butter issues like jobs and transportation. Shumer has made transportation one of his personal issues. Winning FAA approval of and clearance for JetBlue and then getting it into smaller cities such as Syracuse has helped him win votes outside of his Brooklyn home turf.

The development of the Plattsburgh airport from an unused air force base represents a remarkable turnaround, one that shows how political clout can combine with local enthusiasm. Early on, local officials resisted a proposal to turn the airport over to a single private operator, as has happened with other converted military bases. Their goal was to make Plattsburgh a viable commercial airport and so avoid having to take the ferry across the lake to Burlington to catch a flight. They quickly they won an aerospace tenant, and Plattsburgh officials are hoping that the airport's access to a main interstate highway and mainline railroad will bring more aerospace tenants. They have already attracted Bombardier, Pratt &Whitney Canada, Precision Jet Management and others. The airport has a federally approved tariff-free Foreign Trade Zone and tax abatements by New York State will make it a manufacturing centre as well as a ­discount-fares airport.

Peaceful purposes

An earlier experiment in making the military facility a showcase for peaceful uses came in the late 1990s, when the musical group Phish staged a rock concert in the grounds of the old base this was quite a coup because Phish band members hail from Burlington, the rival across Lake Champlain.

Burlington already has scheduled service, including JetBlue flights to warm weather climes, and in fact the Vermont city was one of JetBlue's very first destinations. But Plattsburgh not only is a new airport, but is one with only one scheduled carrier other than Allegiant Air. That is service to Boston's Logan International on small aircraft operated for Delta Connection by Big Sky.

It was the airport's hunger for service and limited competition that helped draw Allegiant Air, which began non-stops between Plattsburgh and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in mid-November. Las Vegas-based Allegiant was the first airline the community targeted, says chamber of commerce president Garry Douglas. The airport competes with Burlington's airport, but has a few distinct advantages in luring Snowbirds: it has free parking and it really wants the Quebecois.

Bilingual signs

The city has erected bilingual signs along the Adirondack Northway, a major road. The signs now have "Aeroport Int de Plattsburgh" near the airport exit.

Allegiant has made a speciality of smaller airports in cold weather climes that have enough surrounding population for service to sunny spots. Allegiant is quick to respond to market changes, and will end service soon after starting if it does not receive a strong initial response. For instance, it ended Las Vegas flights from Springfield, Illinois within four months of the inauguration.

But at Plattsburgh, the response led Allegiant to increase service. Days after beginning its twice weekly service to Fort Lauderdale, it announced that it would add two more weekly flights in February, as well as two weekly flights to Orlando/Sanford. Local officials said at the time that the added service has revealed that about 80% of the Allegiant boardings are from Canada. One departing Plattsburgh passenger said free parking was an attraction when he calculated the cost of parking for several weeks at Montréal's Dorval airport. Others say the airport's limited service is an advantage because the terminal is easy to get through.