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By focusing on low costs and betting on passengers’ flexible itineraries, Frontier thinks it can succeed where others have failed. It’s success may lead to a reconsideration of small regional airports.
“This is a no-brainer,” lawyer Gerry Norton said, standing in the quick-moving security lane at Trenton-Mercer Airport, headed to Orlando, Fla., with his family.
When he first heard that Frontier Airlines would be flying out of Trenton, Norton, who lives in central New Jersey and works in Fox Rothschild L.L.P.’s Princeton office, said, “This is great!”
“It’s convenient. Parking is free. The planes are a good size, 138 seats. It took me 20 minutes to drive here.”
“It gets rid of the whole hassle of traveling by air,” said Norton, whose wife, Jennifer; son, Connor, 10, and daughter, Riley, 5, also were among the seemingly happy travelers who boarded Frontier’s Airbus A-319 Friday morning. The plane did not have one empty seat.
A little earlier, 125 passengers stepped off the flight from Orlando, which landed 10 minutes ahead of schedule on what once was Alfred Reeder’s field.
A dairy farm, with cows, a red barn, and silos, is still just across the road.
“I’m telling all my friends — great flight, good service, and it was cheap,” said Vi Udy of nearby Hamilton Township, who spent 10 days in Orlando. “I don’t go to Florida in the winter, but when I heard about a $149 round-trip flight, I couldn’t resist.”
Trenton-Mercer Airport has been around since 1929, best known for general aviation and corporate flying. Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Hess all keep Gulfstream jets in hangars there.
Now, the 1,300-acre airport in the countryside, nine miles from the state capital and 13 miles from Princeton, has the attention of regular folks, since Denver’s hometown airline announced that it will fly, several times a week, to 10 destinations from Trenton.
It was the airport’s location, and the dense population of 2.5 million within a close drive, that persuaded Frontier in November to begin two nonstop flights a week to Orlando.
Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, Frontier will begin nonstop service to Tampa, Fort Myers, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and New Orleans.
Starting in April, Frontier will initiate flights to Atlanta, Chicago-Midway, Detroit, Raleigh-Durham, and Columbus, Ohio.
Low-fare Frontier hopes that by offering flights to places people want to go — baseball’s spring training, Walt Disney World, cities with major universities nearby, and the pharmaceutical- and tech-company-rich region of Research Triangle Park, N.C. — there will be enough travelers to fill the planes.
Frontier “made the first inquiry to us,” said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. “They were looking for an alternative to what they found in Philadelphia and the region. They looked around, obviously did their due diligence, and thought Mercer County would be a good fit.”
Stephen Smith, wife Carolyn, and three children flew from Orlando on Friday to visit family.
“I spent the first 30 years of my life in New Jersey, and I never knew Trenton had an airport,” Smith said. “We had $130 round-trip flights, which is a crazy price.”
“That’s half what it usually is,” his wife said.
“When people find this out it’s going to be really, really popular,” he predicted. “It’s so much easier than flying out of Newark.”
The new passenger business is expected to generate $1.15 million in revenue this year. That doesn’t include the economic spinoff in car rentals, meals, and hotel stays, said Aaron T. Watson, county director of transportation.
What Frontier likes about Trenton has been seen by others. Since the 1970s, 14 carriers have tried, and failed, to establish commercial jet service there.
What distinguishes Frontier is that it won’t fly to every destination every day, said veteran airline analyst Bob McAdoo, with Imperial Capital L.L.C.
The focus is not on business travelers, but on leisure travelers and customers who want and need to make trips, but can be flexible about the dates.
“It’s people who need to see Grandma, or go to a wedding, but will move their itinerary to save $150,” McAdoo said.
Previous carriers tried to attract the business traveler “who would pay any price to get up to Boston on a Monday morning,” Hughes said. “I just don’t think people fly like that anymore.”
Fliers are looking for a low-cost alternative, he said, “and that’s why I think this might be a good fit.”
Trenton-Mercer, the state’s second-busiest corporate-jet airport, after Teterboro, received $18.5 million last year for runway and taxiway improvements, outdoor lighting, and perimeter fencing.
The airport has two runways, a 21,352-square-foot terminal, an FAA traffic-control tower, accommodations for state Air National Guard and New Jersey state police, several flight schools, three helipads, and 154 aircraft on the premises, belonging to some of New Jersey’s largest corporations.
There are 550 to 600 free parking spots, with 350 more being built. In April, with flights to 10 cities, an additional 300 parking spaces will be needed, for a total of 1,200.
The county will make other capital improvements, including outfitting a restaurant, with revenue from passenger-facility charges, jet-fuel sales, and landing and other fees, “based on Frontier’s needs and the number of people who come through the door,” Hughes said.
If the terminal needs to be expanded or reconfigured, “that will determine somewhere down the line whether we charge for parking,” he said. “We’re not doing it anytime soon.”
(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by MCT Information Services.