CHARLESTON - As discount carrier AirTran Airways made its final flight out of Charleston International Airport on Thursday, David Jennings felt the effect personally from 500 miles away.
"I'm in Washington right now," Jennings, the Charleston County Aviation Authority's chairman, said by telephone. "I think the cost of my ticket coming up was $140, and the return portion of my trip was around $300. I think tomorrow is a change, and I'd say a pretty dramatic change."
Before AirTran's arrival, Charleston was one of the nation's most expensive markets to fly into. Experts estimate the low-cost airline, which landed in Charleston in 2007, saved travelers to and from the Holy City some $80 million a year.
Even though the aviation authority estimated AirTran flights took off with 80 percent of seats sold, too many of those went to vacationers who bought at rock-bottom prices.
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AirTran executives in October shared poor financial results with local tourism officials and pointed to a lack of business travelers. They also gave examples of other communities that offered to make up the financial gap when the company struggled to profit.
So the aviation authority and the rest of the air service team - the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance - took that idea to city and county leaders, who controlled the most accessible pot of funds during the economic downturn. But local officials balked at the projected $250,000 a month cost of keeping the airline operating in Charleston.
"All of (the municipalities) said without hesitation, 'We can't cut people. We can't fail to hire more policemen or firemen. We can't not give people raises,'" Jennings said shortly after the announcement.
AirTran officials also couldn't put a time frame on the financial support.
As authority consultant Gary Edwards put it, the local team "didn't see an end in sight." But Edwards said the community should not be surprised to face the subsidy question again when negotiating with discount carriers.
"They're having money tossed at them left and right, for sure," Edwards said. "You still have to have some economic gravitas to make it work."
When courting AirTran in 2003, Charleston officials secured a $1 million federal grant to offset the startup costs and brought pledges from local business leaders to use the airline. AirTran officials declined to commit to Charleston until four years later.
In the wake of the carrier's departure announcement this fall, the aviation authority began its first-ever incentives program to lure new carriers and services by reducing their startup costs. The perks also include temporarily waiving landing fees, which run about $3,500 per year for a regional jet with one flight a day.
Jennings said Thursday the incentives mark a starting point for discussions with airlines. Once those conversations begin, the other air team players will present their contributions, such as marketing or promoting corporate business.
"We have not gotten that far with any potential new carriers, but I think we 're getting close," Jennings said. "The new buzz word in the industry is 'sharing the risk.'"
The final passengers on AirTran's final flight checked in at the counter Thursday morning no differently than the thousands of others before them over the past two and a half years. Birmingham, Ala., resident Susan Brunson had no idea that her first AirTran flight marked Charleston's last.
Brunson said she chose AirTran to visit her son in Charleston for one reason: The major carrier she usually flies with had gotten too expensive.