Discount carrier Spirit Airlines will launch seasonal service between Atlantic City International Airport and three major cities this spring, including one route that will put it in direct competition with United Airlines.
Daily flights to Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit will begin May 1 as part of Spirit’s spring and summer buildup coinciding with Atlantic City’s peak tourism season.
Previously, Spirit also announced it will add seasonal service between Atlantic City and Boston beginning March 20 to get an early jump on the spring travel rush.
Spirit’s Chicago service will create competition for United, which is entering the Atlantic City market on April 1 with new flights to Chicago and Houston. United will now join Spirit as the only scheduled airlines serving Atlantic City International.
Spirit spokeswoman DeAnne Gabel noted Spirit and United already battle for customers in other markets across the country. She said Spirit is ready for the challenge of competing with United on the Atlantic City-Chicago route.
“We compete with United on about 30 percent of our market,” Gabel said. “We’ll compete with them on that route, as we do on other routes. There are very few markets where we don’t have competition, and our model does fine.”
Spirit and United, however, may target two distinctly different types of customers on the Atlantic City-Chicago route. Known for its low fares, Spirit specializes in flying budget-minded leisure passengers. United’s new flights from Chicago and Houston are seen as a way to bring more conventioneers and other business travelers to the Atlantic City market.
New air service is a critical part of Gov. Chris Christie’s initiative to revive Atlantic City’s struggling tourism market and casino industry. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, operator of six airports in the two states, took over the management of Atlantic City International last July in an effort to bolster an underserved market.
Last year, Atlantic City International handled 1.1 million passengers, down 18 percent from the nearly 1.4 million in 2012. Analysts blamed the decline on the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy and competition from casino markets in surrounding states.
E.J. Mullins, the Port Authority’s interim airport general manager for Atlantic City, acknowledged there is intense competition nationwide to attract new airline service. During a speech last week to the Public Relations Council of Greater Atlantic City, Mullins said the Port Authority is busy trying to lure new airlines.
“We’re not the only ones meeting with them. There are dozens of airports in front of us, and dozens behind us,” he said of the Port Authority’s talks with airlines. “We have to prove to them that the prospect of flying to Atlantic City is greater than their least-performing flight.”
Atlantic City International is offering airlines a package of financial incentives in return for new domestic or international flights. Incentives help minimize the financial risks for airlines at a time when they are tightly controlling their planes and routes to maximize profits.
“Nobody has extra airplanes flying around out there. There’s no extra seats, there’s no extra capacity,” Mullins said. “So our job is to convince a carrier to take an underperforming market, close it down and send that airplane to us. ”
Spirit’s seasonal flights allow the airline to expand its route network to Atlantic City with less risk than year-round service. Atlantic City tourism begins to pick up in spring and reaches its peak during summer, compared to the post-Labor Day slowdown and historically quiet winters.
Gabel said Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit all are good fits for Atlantic City’s summer tourist season. Spirit will operate one nonstop flight per day from each city. Service to Chicago and Detroit will continue until Sept. 2, while the Atlanta flight will end for the season Nov. 1.
The Atlanta-bound flight will depart Atlantic City at 10:35 a.m. and arrive at 12:42 p.m. The return flight leaves Atlanta at 2:08 p.m. and lands in Atlantic City at 4:07 p.m.
Service to Chicago O’Hare International Airport includes a 4:59 p.m. departure from Atlantic City and 6:18 p.m. arrival. From Chicago, the flight leaves at 6:50 a.m. and arrives in Atlantic City at 9:47 a.m.
The Detroit route has a 4:44 p.m. departure from Atlantic City and 6:33 p.m. arrival. The flight out of Detroit leaves 8:10 a.m. and arrives in Atlantic City at 9:45 a.m.
In addition to its seasonal flights, Spirit operates year-round service from Atlantic City to Florida vacation spots and the golfing mecca of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Spirit held an Atlantic City job fair last month to hire 22 new flight attendants to serve its expanding route network. It already has 62 Atlantic City-based flight attendants.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: