Last week, the Mobile Airport Authority announced the results of a feasibility study designed to see if it was, well, feasible to move commercial flights from Mobile Regional Airport to the Brookley Aeroplex.
Guess what? It’s feasible.
“After careful consideration of construction costs, economic potential, community/stakeholder input and an analysis of strengths/opportunities, this study shows that the relocation of commercial service from Mobile Regional Airport (MOB) to the Mobile Downtown Airport at Brookley (BFM) is feasible,” the report read.
Anything is feasible. But is it smart?
The report says, yes, that it could benefit us to the tune of $1.9 billion over next 20 years. But some remain doubtful.
I should start out by saying I am a downtown/midtown Mobile snob. If I could place everything that makes my life more convenient east of Florida Street, I would do it. So the idea of having a shiny, new airport terminal minutes away from my house does seem appealing at first glance. And I am not saying I am against this move, by any means, but I still have more questions.
The study indicated the number of enplanements has been steadily declining over the years at Mobile Regional, while they have been increasing at Pensacola.
Yeah, no duh, I’m sure we would all say in unison. Because it’s usually cheaper to fly out of PNS.
The report, however, seems to place a lot of the blame for this on MOB’s location and lack of accessibility to the interstate. One airline carrier interviewed for the study said, “It is painful to drive down Airport Boulevard to access the current airport.”
Ouch. We all know Airport Boulevard would not win any awards for “fastest Mobile roadway” (although sometimes during the school year it is faster than Dauphin, Old Shell or Springhill), but “painful”? That seems a bit melodramatic.
I would argue it is just as “painful” to get from LaGuardia to Manhattan or to many other downtowns from airports in this country that are situated outside the city center, of which there are many.
But they are thinking more about the folks they are losing from Baldwin County to PNS (some 138,509 peeps, according to the study) than people who live in Mobile proper. The report talks about the amount of “leakage” from Baldwin so much, I wanted to get it a Depends undergarment.
All of the leakage makes sense, though. It certainly is easier for BaCo residents to go up to Spanish Fort and take a right. No Bayway to deal with, no Airport Boulevard. Especially if it’s cheaper. And that’s what’s key: PRICE! More so than location, interstate accessibility — anything, really.
It seems like in order to attract and KEEP these low-cost carriers at Brookley, we absolutely have to recapture the Baldwin market. My question is, can we do that? Does this move guarantee that?
In my own very informal feasibility study, I asked a few of my BaCo friends if the airport was in downtown Mobile, would they use it more. Every single one of them said something to the effect of, “Sure, as long as it’s cheaper.”
When I drilled down a little deeper, I got varying answers. “What if it was just comparable to PNS, what would be your determining factors?” Some said they would prefer bigger (legacy) carriers, if prices were comparable. Some said they were probably always going to consider the airline they earn/use points with regularly. Some said it just depended on flight times fitting with their travel schedules or if it was a direct flight, what the connections were, etc. Some mentioned they were curious to see just how much better the I-10 bridge will make traffic once it’s completed. Basically, all of the common-sense factors we all use to make these decisions every time we fly.
So the million (or billion, in this case) dollar question, when you consider all of these factors, is will we recapture ENOUGH of the Baldwin market to make these low-cost carriers at Brookley happy enough to stick around and offer competitive rates? Also, even if we do recapture enough of the market back from PNS, when the carriers flying out of there notice their own “leakage” to low-cost carriers in Mobile, are they not just going to lower their fares again and dry that leakage right back up?
In this vein, some airport insiders tell Lagniappe they don’t feel like it’s really the location of Brookley that the low-cost carriers are fired up about. What they are excited about is the opportunity to get away from the legacy carriers, like Delta, at least for a little while. The plan is to have the low-cost carriers only at Brookley at first and the legacy carriers will remain at Mobile Regional until a new terminal is built for them. Traditionally, when low-cost carriers come in, the legacy carriers lower their fares until they make it “unfeasible” for them to remain in the market, especially in “business markets” like Mobile. So what happens once all commercial service moves to Brookley? Do the legacy carriers just do what they always do? And then we are right back in the same boat, or rather, expensive plane seat? Talk about “painful.”
These major airline carriers seem like sharks. Or snakes. Or whatever animal you feel really likes to make a lot of money, no matter what it takes. Hey, they’re businesses, you can’t really blame them, but it sucks for us.
Once again, I am not dead set against this. I’d prefer for it to be downtown for convenience. But I’m having a tough time seeing how it solves the problem with the legacy carriers and their price-dumping habits on a long-term basis.
When Lagniappe spoke to city officials about this last week, they were pretty forthright that they couldn’t offer any guarantees this move would solve our pricing problems indefinitely. Their attitude seemed to be, we know if we don’t do anything different than we’ve been doing, we know for certain the leakage will continue. (I promise that’s the last time I’m going to say “leakage.” You’re welcome.) At least this move would give our airport a fighting chance.
They also mentioned some other potential positives.
When they bring major companies in here for recruitment, they always ask them about our strengths and weaknesses, and not having direct flights to more cities has been a major negative for us. Again, they argue they don’t foresee much change in this if things stay as they are. At least we have a chance to change things if we make this bold move, they say.
And they also mentioned if we flip-flopped the airports, it would also give us the opportunity to attract more companies who could locate around Regional. It would essentially turn it into a sort of mega industrial complex.
They also say the move certainly would improve access to the cruise terminal and would be a better selling point for attracting more conventions.
You can’t really argue with any of that.
The next step in this process is for a “master plan” to be developed. I’m hopeful that plan will be more extensive and provide us with more answers to these lingering questions.
I’ll fly MOB. I’ll fly BFM. Like all Mobilians, I just want what’s best for her.