Trenton-Mercer Airport, which had no scheduled airline service at all less than two years ago, has vaulted to the top of the list among the country's fastest-growing airports.
Atlantic City International Airport, however, struggled with the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy last year and ended up among the airports nationwide suffering the biggest losses in passenger traffic.
The newly released figures by Sixel Consulting Group Inc., an airport services firm, tracked passenger growth at the nation's top 300 airports for the 12-month period ending September 2013.
Atlantic City officials say the figures do not reflect a recovery in passenger traffic that began late last year and continues into early 2014 with the help of new service by United Airlines and Spirit Airlines. Talks continue with other airlines about possible service.
"We've had a lot of interest from other airlines," said E.J. Mullins, interim airport general manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates Atlantic City International. "With the airlines that we've been speaking to, it's not a matter of if they're coming to Atlantic City, it's a matter of when. They're optimistic."
Sixel's figures show Atlantic City's outbound traffic fell nearly 22 percent from September 2012 to September 2013. Overall, Atlantic City finished just four spots from the bottom among the airports nationwide suffering the greatest declines. Atlantic City's total traffic declined 18 percent in 2013, to 1.1 million passengers. Airport officials have said the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy depressed traffic through most of the year.
Meanwhile, Trenton-Mercer grabbed bragging rights as the fastest-growing airport last year thanks to discount carrier Frontier Airlines. Denver-based Frontier began service at Trenton in November 2012 and has rapidly expanded its flights since then while transforming Trenton into its East Coast hub.
By June, Frontier will have 73 weekly flights to 17 locations out of Trenton. Before Frontier's arrival, the Mercer County-owned airport languished without any scheduled airline service.
"We're probably the fastest-growing airport because we didn't have anything before. That obviously gives us an advantage," Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said.
Seixel's figures show that Trenton's explosive growth far outpaced any other airport in the country. Its outbound passengers jumped about 2,700 percent - from 4,180 in the third quarter of 2012 to 117,680 in the third quarter of 2013.
Altogether, about 325,000 passengers use Trenton on an annual basis. The figure is expected to jump to 875,000 by 2017, airport officials say. Mercer County 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.
Trenton recently upgraded its runways, expanded its parking and spruced up the terminal with new amenities to accommodate the growth. Hughes noted the airport is reaching well into northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York to tap passengers.
Hughes said Frontier views the airport as a lucrative market, in part because of Mercer County's relatively low unemployment rate, its five colleges and universities, its pharmaceutical companies and Trenton's status as the state capital.
"I think we're doing well as a region," he said.
Trenton and Atlantic City's airports are only about a 90-minute drive from each other. Although they are still considered relatively small regional airports, they both have much bigger aspirations. Both are attempting to attract more airline service, but Hughes downplayed any rivalry between them.
"I don't think they see Atlantic City as a competitor," he said of Trenton-Mercer.
Instead, Hughes pointed to Newark Liberty International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport as Trenton's main competitors. He said Trenton offers a less-stressful alternative to the much-busier Newark and Philadelphia airports.
Sixel's figures show that passenger traffic was essentially flat at both Newark and Philadelphia from the third quarter of 2012 to the same period in 2013.
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