Atlantic City International Airport currently has only one scheduled airline and — despite its name — no international flights.
Yet this underserved facility is regarded as a key piece of Gov. Chris Christie’s state-run Tourism District, which was created for Atlantic City three years ago amid much promise.
Analysts acknowledge the airport is still far from being a hub for the type of airline service that would fly in well-heeled conventioneers and other overnight visitors to town.
No one is quite ready to predict when Atlantic City International’s hoped-for transformation will begin. For now, it seems the airport’s future is tied to the development of more retail, dining and entertainment attractions to complement the casino hotels.
“My thoughts are, we need to have these types of venues in order for people to use the transportation,” said Jon F. Hanson, the New Jersey strategist who headed a governor’s advisory commission that studied Atlantic City’s economy 3½ years ago.
The July 2010 Hanson Report, as the commission’s findings became known, would later form the foundation for Christie’s Tourism District blueprint. Among its findings, the commission outlined the need for more airline service, better ground transportation to connect the casinos with the neighborhoods, and even the possibility of ferry service.
Looking back at those recommendations, Hanson said it is not far-fetched to believe the airport will eventually become a magnet for European charter flights bringing in wealthy international tourists.
“We’ve always been hopeful that charter flights would come to Atlantic City as a point of entry to the United States,” he said.
Located about 10 miles west of Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township, the airport remains a sleepy outpost. It handles about 1.4 million passengers annually, contributing just 1 percent of Atlantic City’s tourists.
Politicians and other dignitaries gathered at the airport in November 2012 to celebrate the completion of a $25 million expansion project that was supposed to be the catalyst for foreign flights.
But on a recent day, that same expanded area of the airport terminal was devoid of airline passengers — a vacant room marked by row after row of empty seats.
For now, there are no international flights. Moreover, Spirit Airlines is the only scheduled carrier that flies domestic service. In what some see as a crucial building block, United Airlines will launch flights to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs beginning April 1.
United is starting cautiously, flying only one flight per day from both Chicago and Houston using small, 50-passenger jets. Analysts believe United and other airlines must do more.
“They have to have a long-range view of what you need to do to build traffic. One or two flights a week or one flight a day doesn’t do that,” said Thomas D. Carver, a former executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that oversees the Tourism District.
Carver noted that during his time at the CRDA, he lined up an agreement with American Airlines to fly three flights daily between Atlantic City and Chicago. However, the American deal never went through because the casino industry failed to support the air service, Carver said.
Bemoaning the lost opportunity of having American serve Atlantic City, Carver urged the casinos to team up with the airport to attract international flights.
“I have always believed that Atlantic City is the only place in New Jersey that can be marketed on an international basis,” he said.
One airport supporter, U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-2nd, once characterized the facility as “under-recognized, really underappreciated and certainly underutilized.” However, its limited use offers airlines an opportunity to avoid the long flight delays plaguing many of the major airports, which could save them millions of dollars in fuel costs, Carver said.
Carver once served as a high-level executive overseeing operations at the Newark airport for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He argued Atlantic City could serve as a reliever airport to alleviate some of Newark’s congested airspace. He also said more flights at Atlantic City would allow it to capture passengers now using the Philadelphia airport.
Carver pointed to Spirit’s Atlantic City service as a business model that works. Spirit specializes in flying South Jersey travelers to vacation hotspots in Florida, offering them low fares and multiple flights each day. Carver would like to see other airlines use a similar strategy — but in reverse — to bring more tourists to Atlantic City.
“The reason Spirit has been so successful, they put in a route and fare structure to establish a relationship with the flying public to use those flights. I think that’s the proof I’m talking about,” Carver said.
Atlantic City International’s development is expected to be boosted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which took over operation of the airport in July from its owner, the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Port Authority oversight is part of Christie’s plan to rejuvenate Atlantic City’s economy through the Tourism District.
However, the Port Authority has not yet publicly divulged its plans. Its airport management team has not returned calls from The Press of Atlantic City seeking comment.
The Port Authority scored an early coup by landing the United flights from Chicago and Houston. Airport supporters hope the Port Authority can use its clout in the airline industry to lure more flights to Atlantic City. It also operates the Kennedy, LaGuardia and Stewart airports in New York and the Newark and Teterboro airports in New Jersey.
But one analyst questioned whether the South Jersey Transportation Authority already wasted too much time and money transforming the airport with upgraded facilities while Atlantic City continues to struggle as a tourist destination.
“SJTA has spent over 20 years and $100 million to convert Atlantic City International Airport from a third-class facility to a first-class facility. Unfortunately, Atlantic City has remained a third-class destination, during this period, for long-distance travel,” said Tony Marino, a transportation analyst and former Atlantic City Expressway executive.
Marino, who retired from the SJTA in 2003, asserted that improvements to the expressway and Garden State Parkway would do more to enhance tourism than the airport’s expansion. Both the expressway and parkway are in the midst of major widening projects designed to smooth traffic flow to the resort towns in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
“While I support every effort to expand service at Atlantic City International Airport, the projects on the Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway in Atlantic and Cape May counties, in my opinion, will have a far greater impact on tourism for South Jersey than anything at the airport,” Marino said.
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