EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Marlene and Michael Distasio got the celebrity treatment the moment they stepped off the plane from Boston.
The crowd showered them with cheers and applause as they sashayed across the ceremonial red carpet covering the floor of the passenger terminal at Atlantic City International Airport.
“This is fantastic,” Marlene Distasio exclaimed as her husband nodded in agreement. “I certainly wasn’t expecting it.”
The celebration wasn’t reserved just for the Distasios. All of the 94 passengers who flew in Thursday afternoon on Spirit Airlines Flight 379 were greeted as though they were movie stars arriving for the Academy Awards in Hollywood.
The hoopla at Atlantic City International marked the return of Spirit’s seasonal flights from Boston, a big boost for a regional airport that is trying to attract more airline service and overnight travelers.
Next up is the April 1 debut of United Airlines’ flights from Chicago and Houston. Spirit’s Boston flights will be followed by the return of the airline’s seasonal service from Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit starting May 1 and leading up to the peak summer tourism rush.
“Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and Houston are all major business hubs. The fact that you can hit all of the business hubs is important for Atlantic City,” 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.
Mullins stressed the celebration for the Boston flights shows Atlantic City International is serious about building customer loyalty and distinguishing itself from rival airports.
“It’s not just any other airport,” he said. “You’re coming to a destination. This is a destination airport. We want to remind them of that as soon as they step off the plane.”
The Port Authority, which runs six airports in New York and New Jersey, took charge at Atlantic City International in July as part of Gov. Chris Christie’s initiative to revive the local casino and tourism industries. Air passengers now make up 1 percent of the nearly 27 million annual visitors to Atlantic City.
As more daytrippers shun Atlantic City for competing casino markets in nearby states, the strategy is to replace those visitors with air passengers who come to town for business travel and multinight vacations.
Eustace Devonish, of Milton, Mass., personifies the type of traveler Atlantic City so eagerly covets. The electrician by trade flew in from Boston for a business trip, paying $100 for his ticket.
“Everyone’s been talking about Spirit having the best value and prices for business travelers coming to Atlantic City,” Devonish said.
Other passengers arriving from Boston on Thursday were looking forward to weekend getaways. The Distasios, of Braintree, Mass., have visited Atlantic City before, but this trip marked the first time they will stay at Revel Casino Hotel, the newest casino in town.
“It looks very nice, a lot like Las Vegas,” Michael Distasio said of Revel.
The Distasios and other passengers on Flight 379 got a sense this would be no ordinary arrival when water cannons doused their jet in a celebratory spray as it pulled up to the terminal. The arrival gate was decorated with blue-and-white balloons, a strip of red carpet and a sign saying “Atlantic City International Airport welcomes back Boston.” Passengers were handed gift bags stuffed with saltwater taffy and other Atlantic City-themed goodies.
In addition to the gift bags, passengers received an impromptu geography lesson: The airport is located in Egg Harbor Township, about 10 miles west of Atlantic City.
Lindsay Shevelow and her fiance, Scott Irving, both of Boston, flew in for a joint bachelor-bachelorette party in Atlantic City. Shevelow noted that some of her friends joined her on the plane, while some others decided to make the drive from Boston to Atlantic City.
“It definitely beats a seven-hour drive,” Shevelow said of the 75-minute flight. “I would definitely fly here again.”
A coalition of government agencies, the casino industry and local business groups has launched a $1 million-plus marketing campaign to promote the airport’s new flights to out-of-state visitors, as well as New Jersey travelers.
Last year, the airport handled 1.1 million passengers, an 18 percent decline from the 1.4 million in 2012. Airport officials blamed the decrease on the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy.
But an upward trend began in the fourth quarter of 2013 and has continued in early 2014. Despite the unusually harsh and snowy winter weather, passenger traffic rose nearly 13 percent in February compared to the same month in 2013. Overall, traffic volume is up nearly 10 percent so far in 2014, according to figures compiled by the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
Mullins expressed confidence that the airport will continue to experience brisk growth, once the United flights from Chicago and Houston and Spirit’s service from Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit begin in coming weeks.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: