Asheville, North Carolina, is quietly gaining steam in something other than microbreweries and its bohemian arts scene: a red-hot aviation market.
Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is seeing a renaissance in its tourism industry in recent years. Enough people are seeking out the picturesque Biltmore Estate or the region’s 40 craft breweries that Asheville is boosting its hotel rooms by 40 percent over four years. Weekly departing seats from tiny Asheville Regional Airport have grown by 33 percent on average over the last two years, according to data from aviation consultancy ICF Inc., with many of the travelers coming from the New York area.
In fact, Southeast tourism factors into the gains at some of the fastest-growing U.S. airports. Asheville ranks No. 2 in the country in seating capacity growth since 2016, behind only the Florida resort area of Destin-Fort Walton Beach in airports with at least 5,000 weekly departing seats. The tourist business is also driving a chunk of the double-digit growth at airports with more than 25,000 weekly departures, most notably in Savannah, Georgia, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“These aircraft are coming in slammed full,” said Tracy Stage, airports director for Okaloosa County, Florida. “Destin used to be a well-kept secret, but it’s ranked in the top five in terms of world-class beaches and fishing.”
In Asheville, the tourism scene has been helped in part by a growing New York connection. Deep discount carrier Allegiant Air created four flights a week between Asheville and Newark, New Jersey in late 2016, and United Airlines responded soon after by making its seasonal flight from Newark into a year-round one, airport executive director Lew Bleiweis said.
Lodging developers see gold and could push Asheville’s room count to 9,400 by next year from 6,650 rooms in 2015 if all the projects make it out of the ground, said Dodie Stephens, spokeswoman for Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
To be sure, many of the fastest-growing airports are also small and starting from a low base. Among the fastest-growing larger airports are those in Austin, Texas and San Jose, home to bustling technology industries, said Mark Drusch, a consultant with ICF. Both markets grew by more than 16 percent annually over the past two years.
In addition to tourism and robust economies, added flights in some cities follow the growth of discount airlines that target smaller airports. Other airports benefit from changes in strategy among the large “legacy” carriers. For instance, Appleton, Wisconsin has seen a surge in its airport’s seating capacity because of a new contract Appleton-based Air Wisconsin signed with United Airlines to provide short connecting flights.
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