EWING TOWNSHIP — Jet-setters’ visions of luxury travel to far-flung, exotic destinations may come crashing down to earth when they step inside the 41-year-old passenger terminal at Trenton-Mercer Airport.

No-frills surroundings give the impression of a bus depot. Vending machines, spartan seating, tiny bathrooms and even a 50-cent pay phone that looks like a throwback to the 1980s all add to the antiquated ambiance.

Modest though this terminal may seem, there is something that suggests this airport has much higher aspirations: Pulling up to the arrival gates are Airbus A319 jets that feature iconic images of animals painted on the tails and the word “Frontier” splashed across the fuselage in gigantic letters. Denver-based Frontier Airlines has transformed the Trenton airport into its East Coast hub and has made it a major part of its national growth strategy. By June, Frontier will have 73 weekly flights to 17 destinations out of Trenton.

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Frontier started serving Trenton in November 2012, offering twice-weekly service to Orlando, Fla. Its route build-up over the past two years reflects its confidence in the Trenton market.

Trenton’s transformation from obscure, airline-starved facility to Frontier stronghold in just two years has at least one other New Jersey airport taking notice. Atlantic City International Airport now views Trenton as a competitor as both locations vie for more carriers in their quest to establish themselves as low-cost alternatives to Philadelphia and Newark.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a government super-agency that operates six airports in both states, took over operations at Atlantic City International last July to energize the facility. The Port Authority scored an early coup by signing up United Airlines for daily flights to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs starting April 1. Spirit Airlines, Atlantic City’s dominant carrier, is adding seasonal flights to Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit to capitalize on the rush of summer tourists.

However, the Port Authority now has the up-and-coming Trenton airport to worry about, especially as Frontier continues to fill its planes with New Jersey travelers who might otherwise have made Atlantic City their first choice.

“Part of our job is to keep an eye on it. We have to pay close attention to it,” E.J. Mullins, the Port Authority’s interim airport general manager for Atlantic City, said of Trenton.

Frontier has had “limited discussions” about possibly starting service at Atlantic City International, but has not strongly considered the idea, Frontier spokeswoman Kate O’Malley said.

Atlantic City International handled 1.1 million passengers last year, down 18 percent from 1.4 million in 2012. About 325,000 passengers use Trenton’s airport each year, but the figure is expected to jump to 875,000 by 2017, Mercer County officials say.

Mercer County, owner of the Trenton airport, has launched a master plan to study the possibility of developing a new terminal to replace the cramped building that has been hosting passengers since the 1970s.

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes noted the existing terminal recently underwent an $875,000 spruce-up to add more amenities, including a larger passenger-waiting area, new baggage-claim facility and extra bathrooms. The terminal also has an upstairs bar and restaurant, called the Sky Lounge, that offers expansive views of the runways and airfield.

Another $3.5 million was spent to build more parking spaces to handle what is fast becoming traffic overflow. Parking once was free, but a new fee of $2 per hour, or $8 daily, is helping to finance Trenton’s improvements.

Runway safety upgrades have been made recently to bring the airport into full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards, according to an airport fact sheet provided by Mercer County. Funding from the FAA and New Jersey Department of Transportation paid for 95 percent of the $16 million in runway improvements.

Hughes said a new terminal will be built eventually, but no timetable has been set. He wants to proceed cautiously with major expansion plans, particularly the construction of a terminal.

 “I’m a ‘build it as you need it’ type of person instead of ‘build it and they will come,’” he said.

Still, Hughes remains confident that more passengers and new airlines will head to the airport; he views it as the gateway to the central New Jersey region. Convenient access off I-95 and three nearby train stations serving the Northeast Corridor put the airport within easy reach of travelers from central New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

Located about four miles from Trenton in Ewing Township, the airport currently attracts more than 75 percent of its passengers from outside Mercer County. It is reaching well into northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York to tap passengers, Hughes said.

“We saw an opportunity at Trenton-Mercer Airport because of the highly populated area that was underserved by low-cost carriers,” O’Malley said. “More than 2.5 million people live closer to Trenton-Mercer Airport than to any other airport with commercial service. Primary airports in this region, like Newark and Philadelphia, are expensive, congested and delay-prone.”

Trenton’s fliers are largely leisure passengers, but Hughes is hopeful the airport can begin attracting more business travelers to create a well-balanced customer base.

Efforts continue to attract other airlines to Trenton, but Frontier is the only scheduled carrier serving the airport now. Frontier will be holding job fairs to help it recruit between 50 and 75 new workers for its Trenton base. It has also extended its airport lease to 2017, suggesting it is staying for the “long haul,” Hughes said.

Other airlines have come and gone at Trenton over the years, but Frontier’s ultra-low-fare strategy seems to be resonating with passengers.

Frontier passenger Kelly McHugh said the Trenton airport is only a 12-minute drive from her home in Feasterville, Pa. In addition to its convenience, the airport has been tempting McHugh with its low fares.

McHugh noted that she paid just $138 for a round-trip ticket to Chicago’s Midway Airport, making a St. Patrick’s Day weekend getaway to the Windy City with her friends even more affordable.

“I would pay for this any day over Philadelphia. It’s just worth it to me,” McHugh said, comparing Trenton with Philadelphia’s airport.

Roger Handtke, a doctor from DeMotte, Ind., discovered the Trenton airport while flying in for a physician-certification test in Philadelphia. Although he was surprised by how small the airport is, Handtke said he will consider using Trenton again for trips to the East Coast.

Handtke said Trenton offers a lower-cost option than flights to the larger Philadelphia airport. His round-trip fare for a Frontier flight between Chicago and Trenton was $268, including taxes and fees.

“It was a very good price,” he said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:


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