One of the most dramatic differences between the Atlantic City and Las Vegas casino markets is the number of visitors who arrive by air.
In Las Vegas, air passengers account for about half of all visitors; in Atlantic City, they are just 1 percent.
Casino charter flights, however, are expected to give a big boost this year to a market dominated by drive-in customers — automobile trips supply 85 percent of Atlantic City’s visitors.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City’s top casino, is planning to launch Fly Borgata charter service in March from Pittsburgh, Charlotte, N.C., Buffalo, N.Y., and the Richmond-Norfolk, Va., area. More cities are expected to be added this summer.
“We believe there’s a good customer base that has been developed throughout the region,” Joe Lupo, Borgata’s senior vice president of operations, explained of the need for expanded air service to Atlantic City.
Borgata is partnering with Ultimate Jet to introduce upscale charter flights on 30-passenger Dornier jets. The service will include expedited airport check-in, leather seats and shuttle rides to the casino.
Lupo said the charters will be invitation-only service limited to members of Borgata’s customer-loyalty programs. The flights will be combined with hotel packages, ensuring Borgata a steady stream of overnight guests.
“We believe this method of transportation is going to result in more visitation,” Lupo said. “I think Borgata will show our commitment to grow the market by introducing service to cities that are too far to drive from.”
Borgata plans to begin the service with eight flights per month, but will look to expand. Lupo stressed that charter air service has become as important as ever, with competition growing even more intense between Atlantic City and casinos in surrounding states.
“We’re hoping that we attract somebody who is looking to stay longer and is looking for the amenities, and the food and beverage options, that we have that are different than most of the regional gaming markets,” he said.
Borgata is not the only Atlantic City casino operator that hopes to capitalize on air traffic. Caesars Entertainment Corp., owner of the Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos, previously announced a new three-year deal with Republic Airways for charter flights.
Republic will carry an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 air visitors a year to Atlantic City from cities in the U.S. and Canada, Caesars said.
The Caesars-Republic service, which began Jan. 10, includes flights on 99-passenger jets sporting the Frontier Airlines logo. Frontier is a Republic subsidiary.
When it announced the Republic deal in December, Caesars Entertainment noted that charter flights will allow the company to extend its reach outside of the traditional drive-in markets. Overall, Caesars plans to fly casino customers to Atlantic City from 30 to 40 cities, mainly from the eastern part of the country, as well as Toronto and Montreal, the company said.
“We expect flights and seating capacity to be up 3 percent to 5 percent in 2013,” said Scott Barber, regional president for Caesars Entertainment South.
A check of Caesars’ flight schedule for February showed flights from cities in the East, South and Midwest. Atlanta, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit and Toronto were among the bigger cities.
The charter operation allows Caesars to combine air, gambling, hotel and entertainment packages for members of its Total Rewards loyalty program. In addition to the Republic deal, Caesars will operate flights with other charter operators, including the locally based Gold Transportation.
“We are optimistic about 2013 prospects for increased flight activity, some of which is related to our new agreement with Republic and their 99-seat jets,” Barber said. “We view our plane program as a means to capitalize on our distribution network built through Total Rewards.”
Caesars, like Borgata, is also looking to take advantage of another asset — Atlantic City International Airport, about 10 miles west of Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township. Currently, the airport is limited to only one scheduled carrier, Spirit Airlines. Lupo said Borgata is taking its “own initiative” to help expand air service.
“Atlantic City International is such a convenient location,” Lupo said. “It recently went through a renovation. Unfortunately, there aren’t the number of flights that have grown over the years.”
The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the state agency that operates the airport, completed a $25 million expansion project in November in hopes of attracting more scheduled, charter and international flights.
“We’re always trying to get additional flights,” authority spokesman Kevin Rehmann said. “It’s really up to the casinos about what comes in on charters. But we can accommodate them.”
Airport statistics show that 157,013 passengers flew on charter flights at Atlantic City International in 2011, the most recent year for which South Jersey Transportation Authority figures are available. Charters supplied about 11 percent of the airport’s total 1.4 million passengers in 2011. Overall, air passengers represented only 1 percent of Atlantic City’s total 28.4 million visitor trips in 2011.
In the past, the most popular charter markets to Atlantic City have included Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown, Ohio; Farmingdale and Teterboro in New York and New Jersey; Pittsburgh and Latrobe, Pa.; and Raleigh-Durham and Greenville, N.C., Rehmann said.
Other top charter markets to Atlantic City have been Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse and Rome, N.Y., Greensboro and Charlotte, N.C.; Spartanburg, S.C.; Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Providence, R.I.; Boston; and Manchester, N.H.
McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas depends on casino charter flights much less than Atlantic City because the bulk of its passengers arrive on scheduled carriers.
McCarran, which handled more than 40 million passengers in 2012, supplies about 45 percent of Las Vegas’ visitors each year, said Mark Suman, the airport’s air service development administrator. About 629,000 McCarran passengers flew on charters last year.
“They’re not all that important,” Suman said of McCarran’s charter flights. “Maybe it’s because we have so much scheduled service. That’s really the big driver here.”
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