Daniel Shurz, the senior vice president of Frontier Airlines, stood at a podium with a big smile as the renovated Trenton-Mercer Airport was about to re-open for flights earlier this month.
Many have asked how well Trenton-Mercer’s only scheduled airline had been doing.
“We start again tomorrow,” Shurz said. “We had 690 seats to sell on our departing flights and only 17 remain. Are there 17 people in this crowd who want to go somewhere tomorrow?” Shurz then added that the flight to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, was sold out. “Can’t offer you that route,” he said with a smile.
To some, the whole scenario at the airport is surreal. So many airlines have come and gone that it would be easy to conclude that no carrier could be successful. Frontier, a low-cost carrier, has debunked that.
Since November of last year, Frontier has been flying 138-seat Airbus A-319 jets out of Trenton-Mercer. After the airline’s first destination, Orlando, proved popular, it quickly added more, including Atlanta, Chicago-Midway, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Raleigh-Durham, and Tampa.
As Robert Prunetti, MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, will tell you, Frontier’s success is based on three factors: “They came in last November with the right plane, the right destination, and the right price. Nobody used this airport like that before.”
Adds Kim Sarsteiner, a Frontier marketing director: “This was an under-used airport, and certainly the situation we were looking for as far as a focus city. Trenton-Mercer has worked out as well as we could have expected.”
Depending on the date, a flight to Orlando on Frontier costs about $199 each way for economy. There is no business or first class. Instead, passengers can upgrade to “classic” or “classic plus” for an extra $28 or $53 respectively. Classic includes a seat toward the front of the plane, a free checked bag, the ability to watch the in-flight TV system, and a drink. Classic plus also includes stretch seating and a fully refundable fare. Those options are all sold a la carte if you don’t upgrade your ticket at purchase, with the cost of checking a bag $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second.
The routes will eventually grow to 13, as Cincinnati and Charlotte (February 12), Cleveland (February 13), Indianapolis (April 29), and Nashville (April 30) join the list of destinations.
Frontier will adjust the schedule January 5, ending flights to Columbus, Ohio, from Trenton-Mercer. The airline flew to New Orleans from Trenton-Mercer until last summer. Frontier officials said the Columbus and New Orleans routes from Trenton did fine, but they felt they could get better use out of their planes, three of which will be based in Trenton as of February, compared to two presently.
Frontier officials believe the Trenton-Mercer-to-Charlotte route is bound to be popular, as a lack of competition has boosted round-trip fares on the Philadelphia-to-Charlotte run to well over $300. Fares on that route are a bit cheaper at Newark-Liberty, but they can run about $250. An early booking on Frontier could save a traveler more than $100.
“We want to give regional travelers an alternative to Charlotte,” Shurz said. “We also want to give them the convenience of not having to go to Philadelphia and Newark. At Trenton-Mercer, you don’t have to put up with the crowds, waits for security, and the like. Charlotte, in our minds, will do very well for us out of Trenton-Mercer.”
Asked if Frontier’s sale to Indigo Partners from Republic Airways, a $36 million transaction, would affect service at Trenton-Mercer, Shurz quickly shook his head. “Indigo is all in favor of what we are doing here,” he said. “They are very pleased with what we’ve done both here and in Delaware.” Indigo also owns Spirit Airlines, the ultra-low-cost carrier flying out of Atlantic City.
With the airport resuming operations November 8, Shurz forecast more increases in weekly flights. And with events such as the Super Bowl this February and the 2014 Special Olympics Nationals coming to the Mercer County area in the summer, Frontier hopes flights to Trenton-Mercer will be popular with visitors.
“With the renovations, the capacity at Trenton-Mercer has increased,” Shurz said. “We plan to take advantage of that capacity. More destinations may very well be coming.”
Those renovations have made the 1970s-vintage terminal into something much better for both pilots and passengers. More than $20.3 million worth of improvements were made to Trenton-Mercer’s main 6,006-foot runway, the terminal itself, and the parking lots.
Engineered material arresting system beds were constructed at each end of Trenton-Mercer’s main runway, which was required by the Federal Aviation Administration. The system is designed to stop planes from skidding off the runway in the event of a crash landing. The $16 million project was 90 percent underwritten by the FAA and 5 percent by NJDOT.
The terminal received these $875,000 in upgrades:
A new baggage claim facility just outside the terminal. A walkway, which will be covered, connects the area of deplaning with this facility.
Passenger luggage check-in as they enter the terminal. Dragging bulky suitcases down stairs has been eliminated.
Restrooms and food options beyond the security areas for passengers.
A much-larger passenger waiting area, which will accommodate two full flights.
Parking renovations cost $3.5 million, which will be paid for through parking revenues. The improvements include:
Additional spaces at the main terminal, bringing the total to 1,106. A new surface lot with 119 spaces will accommodate airport employees, rental cars, and a cell phone lot for motorists waiting to pick up passengers.
Improved traffic circulation.
Gated parking lots, with a cost for parking of $2 per hour and $8 per day. Previously, the parking lot was free, but overcrowded.
USA Today ran a story this month asking, “Did Frontier Hit the Jackpot in Trenton?” focusing on the airline’s success at both Trenton-Mercer and Wilmington. At this point, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.
Since the 1970s, 14 commercial passenger carriers have tried and failed to establish a permanent presence at Trenton-Mercer Airport.
Allegheny Douglas flew DC-9s nonstop to Chicago in 1977 and ’78. United flew Boeing 727s and Boeing 737s to Trenton in 1984 and ’85.
In the mid to late-1990s Eastwind Airlines operated a hub out of Trenton to Florida and Virginia as well as airports in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania with 737s. Destinations often changed, and the airline, although doing well on the route to Boston, never had a focus.
Shuttle America operated a scheduled business commuter service to airports in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina from 1998 to 2003. The airline flew 50-seat De Havilland turboprops. The airline ceased operations at Trenton-Mercer after a flight-sharing service with US Airways drew customers to nearby Philadelphia from Trenton.
Scheduled jet service returned in 2006 and 2007 when Comair flew to Atlanta and Boston from Trenton as the Delta Connection using CRJ-200 aircraft. But Big Sky Airlines took over the Boston service with Beech 1900s in 2007 and the Atlanta route was scrapped. The service ended in early 2008.
A few other small carriers offering service with prop aircraft — Boston Maine Airways from 2000 to 2008 and Streamline Airlines, a single-plane operation in 2011 and 2012 — offered service to Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts. The service was geared almost totally to business travelers and was non-competitive in price — Streamline opened with a $299 round trip to the small airport nearly 24 miles from Boston.
Frontier officials said they have had “some requests” for Boston, but, at this point, they have not seen enough interest to add that route. Frontier would fly to Boston-Logan, in the center of the city.
Frontier Airlines, Trenton-Mercer Airport, 1100 Terminal Circle Drive, Ewing, 08628. 800-432-1359, www.flyfrontier.com.