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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Mercer Airport: Is Bigger Better?
Ever since Southwest Airlines, the commercial carrier
that focuses on serving small airports, expressed an interest in moving
in at Trenton-Mercer Airport, there have been waves of both support
and opposition. A major supporter of such an airline moving in is
Mercer County executive Robert Prunetti. "I’ve always believed
the airport is the economic engine for this county, and we think that
it will have a tremendous impact on our community. In the long term,
a reliable commercial airline will certainly open up the door to businesses."
Prunetti will be discussing the impact of a major commercial airline
on the local economy at the Mercer Chamber meeting on Tuesday, April
25, at 7:45 a.m. at MarketFair’s food court. Call 609-393-4143. Cost:
Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com) has been talking about coming to this area since
1996, when there was a flurry of press excitement about the potential
for its arrival. Southwest focuses on short flights (average 1 1/2
hours) and pioneered in offering low fares, with the average fare
of about $79. It is known for looking for a sense of humor in the
employees that it hires — its stewardesses are allowed to crack
jokes and carry out their duties with a sense of levity. But this
airline is going to need to summon every ounce of its corporate sense
of humor to propel itself through the opposition here; its move to
Trenton is not a done deal.
It would be the 12th carrier at the airport since 1983, the most recent
loser being Eastwind, which lasted from 1995 to 1999. By the time
it left, Shuttle America had already moved in — it now flies turboprops
to three destinations.
Trying to counter the critics who point to all the economic failures
of Southwest’s predecessors, Prunetti refers to a study of Southwest’s
impact on Providence, Rhode Island. It indicated $400 million of growth,
says Prunetti, and Mercer County could see similar growth. "Having
this service opens up the door for many people who otherwise wouldn’t
be able to travel," he says, "and we need to look at the number
of jobs this would create both at Southwest and also in support services."
He refers to a federal department of transportation
study that coined the term the "Southwest Effect," meaning
that wherever Southwest flies, that’s where you have low fares and
the most customers. "When Southwest comes to town the number of
travelers dramatically increases, because more people can afford to
fly," says a spokesperson for the airline.
Another deterrent to welcoming a second airline is the need for a
second terminal with at least two gates, better passenger security,
and more counter space. Expansion plans hinge on an environmental
assessment that will be completed later this summer, at which point
the Mercer County Freeholders will vote on the expansion. If expedited,
as the county hopes, the construction could be completed within two
years. Construction of the $16 million terminal would be funded through
state and federal monies plus user fees.
"Trenton Mercer is an airport we are interested in, but no more
and no less than the other cities we are taking a look at," says
Christine Turneabe Connelly, spokesperson for the airline. "These
discussions can take years. For instance, we were meeting with representatives
from Albany for nearly 10 years. But most of our relationships are
long term. We are primarily a short haul carrier, but once we do decide
to go there we are in it for the long haul."
Those in opposition also cite noise pollution and environmental concerns.
Southwest would be flying 737s, perhaps beginning with 12 flights
a day and expanding to 20 flights a day. "It would be a fraction
of the total number of airplanes coming in and out each day,"
says Prunetti. "I live about a mile from the airport, so it’s
not like I don’t know what the concerns are, but the noise would not
be substantial enough to warrant missing this opportunity. I think
in terms of redevelopment of the city of Trenton, access to air travel
Not everyone agrees. "We feel the area doesn’t need airport expansion
because it is in such close proximity to Newark and Philadelphia.
Every airline that has been in there has left. It is a very developed
area and we don’t feel they should come in with jet passenger planes
like 727s and 737s. They are very big and very loud and will be flying
over established neighborhoods," says Sharon Squicciarino,
a Hopewell resident and head of People Limiting Airport Noise and
As legal counsel for PLANE, R. William Potter of 194 Nassau
Street suggests that the county and the airport might be open to "inverse
condemnation" lawsuits to compel airport operators to pay for
lost property values and loss of enjoyment of the property by people
who can’t go outside because jets are flying low. "The county
should be focused on sprawl controlling projects, such as reviving
the West Trenton train line, to get people out of their cars and into
"To make the airport a success, as part of the Faustian bargain
you would get the hotels, convention centers, restaurants, strip centers
— all the stuff you have around Newark," says Potter.
"Many businesses will open up because many more people can afford
to fly out of those cities to develop business, but that does not
necessarily mean that businesses will sprout up next to the airport,"
counters Connelly, the spokesperson for Southwest.
And Trenton/Mercer’s proximity to Newark and Philadelphia
would not necessarily be a deterrent, she says, pointing out that
Providence, Rhode Island, is close to Boston but has been one of the
airline’s best markets.
The Boeing 737s, configured for 120 or 137 seats, go to 57 airports
in 29 states. Southwest prefers alternative airports, and, for instance,
flies out of Chicago Midway rather than O’Hare. "We avoid airport
hubs because it gives us more flexibility and avoids congestion,"
she says. "It is less expensive for us and often easier for our
customers to get in and out of."
In an industry that often bleeds money, Southwest has been profitable
for 27 of its 29 years and attributes this to keeping costs down.
And, notes Connelly, "we have one of the youngest fleets, with
an average age of 8.4 years."
One reason other airlines failed here was because of infrequent flights.
With only two or three flights a day to a particular city, travelers
had no flexibility if their plans changed. But deep-pocketed Southwest
insists on high frequency. Islip, Hartford, Providence, Manchester
— each has seven or eight nonstops to Baltimore. In Albany there
is just one nonstop to Las Vegas but there are several connecting
flights, and it is starting out with seven daily nonstops to Baltimore
at fares ranging from $30 to $65 one way.
The difference between Southwest and the current tenant, Shuttle America,
is that Shuttle America uses 50-seat turboprops. It has seven flights
daily costing up to $149 to Bedford, Massachusetts (near Boston),
three flights costing up to $119 to Greensboro, North Carolina, and
four flights daily costing up to $159 to Buffalo, New York. Depending
on advance purchase arrangements, tickets go as low as $49, $69, and
Southwest America (800-435-9792) will not say what destinations would
be available from Trenton, but it currently flies from these east
coast airports: Islip, Long Island; Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford,
Connecticut; Manchester, New Hampshire; Baltimore/Washington airport,
Albany, New York, Raleigh-Durham, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando.
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