Carole Shifrin/ORLANDO Following a surge in international traffic from UK charter carriers, Orlando's once sleepy Sanford Airport is expanding to attract carriers from home and abroad, including the latest incarnation of Pan American

UK charter airlines have discovered uncrowded Orlando Sanford International Airport as their gateway to the tourist attractions of central Florida, providing the once-sleepy airport with an increasingly strong international passenger base. A quiet airport 30min north of busy Orlando International Airport, Sanford has been transformed over the past few years by an influx of new business. Passenger-traffic levels have been around 1 million a year for the past three years, compared with 48,000 in 1995.

Since then, 95% of passengers have been from international flights. Now its operator - a US subsidiary of UK-based holding company TBI - seeks to expand smaller domestic business. The once-again resurrected Pan American Airways is the only scheduled domestic carrier at the airport, but TBI, working under an unusual public/private partnership, is hoping a $25 million, seven-gate expansion of the domestic terminal, due to be completed ahead of schedule by the end of the year, will help entice other carriers.

Behind the growth is a concentration of UK charter carriers which operate to Sanford instead of Orlando International. Airtours International, Air 2000, Monarch Airlines and the new JMC Airlines (the merged Caledonian Airways and Flying Colours Airlines) are set to operate up to 10 widebody flights a day during the peak summer season.

Sanford has gone all out to attract charter carriers, designing and building facilities specifically for leisure traffic. This includes a newly expanded welcome centre, where UK tour operators greet customers after they have cleared US customs and immigration. Other selling points include a 4,300m (14,100ft) main runway with no congestion, low airport charges, an all-inclusive package for airline handling and services, efficient ground handling, and 24h staffing of a large US customs and immigration facility.

The compact airport also offers free luggage carts, free parking and claims to have "the fastest car rental service" in Florida. Two on-site car rental firms have more than 2,000 cars available in the "ready" spaces next to baggage claim.

Although Orlando International is closer to many tourist attractions, the ease and speed of getting through Sanford - about 45min from disembarking from the aircraft to driving away - compensates for elapsed time from aircraft touchdown to arrival at the traveller's ultimate destination.

The airport's efficiency and cost structure are among its strongest selling points, says Gregory Dull, vice-president and director of marketing for Orlando Sanford International, the TBI subsidiary that operates the airport. "Our airport charges are lower and we can work creatively with airlines to handle them at a discount," he says.

Landing fees are ó65 per 450kg (1,000lb), compared with $1.80 at Orlando International. There are no passenger facility charges. Sanford officials are talking to European charter carriers, but not to international scheduled airlines because they may want to operate to Orlando International with their codeshare partners. But the airport is keen to attract more domestic flights. "We're not looking for a Delta or United," Dull explains. "We're looking for smaller airlines."

The building programme will expand the domestic terminal by 11,100m2 (120,000ft2) into a flexible, dual-use facility with seven gates that can accommodate widebody aircraft. Three of the gates can be used for international overflow traffic while the others are used for domestic flights, or all seven could be used for international flights during peak periods.

The facility also will accommodate about 30 ticket counter positions, baggage claim areas and retail and food/beverage concessions. The expansion will increase domestic capacity to 3 million passengers a year - no threat to Orlando International, which is ranked as the 24th busiest airport in the world last year with a total of 29.2 million passengers.

New Pan Am

Pan Am expects to be the first beneficiary of the new domestic facility. The carrier began operating to Sanford last October and operates three daily roundtrips. Services originate in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Gary, Indiana, just outside Chicago, and now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Travellers from Bangor, Maine, have a one-stop service to Sanford.

Pan Am president Dave Fink says the carrier also is considering flights to Sanford from Mid-America Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, east of St Louis, Missouri. With the exception of Pittsburgh, Fink says: "We go into an airport someone else has left without any service; we think that's our niche."

Pan Am's services, using roomy 149-seat Boeing 727-200s, have struck a chord with travellers, providing the airline with hefty load factors from Portsmouth - well over 80% - and growing loads on the newer services. The airline recently purchased 10 Jetstream 31 turboprops for potential use between Sanford and other Florida destinations such as Key West, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale. The flights would provide additional travel options to Pan Am's UK-originating passengers and also to those who live in the Sanford area - of particular interest to TBI and the Sanford Airport Authority.

"Until October, this airport didn't serve the community," Dull says. "Now it's starting to." Although Pan Am's services are being disrupted by construction of the terminal expansion - passengers have to step through the check-in facility to get outside to board the aircraft, for instance - Fink says TBI has gone out its way to be accommodating. When construction dismantled the baggage claim area, TBI instituted a valet service to deliver passengers' bags to them in an open-air covered location outside the terminal's front door.

TBI's involvement with Sanford started in 1997 when it took over the long-term management contract for the international terminal. Last year it signed a 30-year contract to operate, manage and develop the domestic airline terminal facilities at the airport. Under a unique arrangement with the Sanford Airport Authority, TBI pays $10 million in consideration for the management contract against the $25 million cost of the terminal expansion project.

The agreement called for a $7.5 million payment up front which is being applied directly towards construction costs. The remaining $2.5 million will be spread evenly, in the form of $500,000 annual payments, over the first five years of the contract. The airport authority uses the payments as local matching funds for airfield capital requirements which are eligible for Federal Aviation Administration and Florida Department of Transportation grants.

Victor White, executive director of the Sanford Airport Authority, says the arrangement is "a win-win situation for everyone involved", allowing the authority, which owns the terminal buildings and the airport land, to acquire the terminal faster and cheaper. "There is a risk - because there isn't much domestic service," he says, "but both share the risk and the benefits." Once completed, the terminal project will be "essentially debt-free with no impact to the airport's current rates and charges," White adds.

He and the local Sanford government are particularly interested in attracting domestic flights to provide local residents with tangible travel benefits. They point to an ever-increasing catchment area. The region has attracted many high-tech businesses and there will soon be a link between a major interstate and the freeway adjacent to Sanford, making the airport more accessible. Officials also point to Sanford's proximity to Daytona Beach, 35min to the north, which has limited air services.

"We're not going to displace Orlando International, but there is a niche we can serve," White says. "We've proven it with the campaign for UK charters."

Growth projections

TBI, a growing airport management and ownership group, is optimistic about Sanford's future, says Larry Gouldthorpe, president and managing director of Sanford International. Projections call for total airport traffic to grow over the next five years to around 3 million passengers, he says. Although airport traffic declined last year after Britannia Airways and Caledonian moved to Orlando International, growth has resumed this year with Pan Am's flights, new charters operated by Aeromexico, seat capacity growth by existing operators and Caledonian's return (as JMC).

Gouldthorpe is upbeat about domestic services. "Pan Am has caught on very well," he says. "As it becomes more noticed by industry, we think interest will increase - especially when we have a proper facility." He expects the emerging economic development base around Sanford to be important in increasing domestic services. About 20% of Pan Am's passengers originate in the Orlando area; Gouldthorpe expects a gradual shift over the next five years to 30-35%.

Sanford is one of five North American airport properties in which TBI has a presence. One objective of its acquisition of Airport Group International (AGI) last year was to increase its participation in the US market, Gouldthorpe says. "We wanted to use it as a platform for growing our business in North America, and the USA in particular," he says.

In North America, TBI operates and manages Terminal 3 at Toronto Pearson International, and manages the airports in Burbank, California, and Albany, New York, and the 28-gate international concourse at Atlanta Hartsfield.

Source: Airline Business