Montgomery Business Journal

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Chip Gentry is the vice president of air service development for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and the Montgomery Airport Authority. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.

February 2014

Montgomery Business Journal: When did you start in your role as vice president of air service development?

Gentry: The first of November.

MBJ: In the short time that you have been here, what have you learned about the Montgomery Regional Airport?

Gentry: There’s been an image of air service here that has not changed with all the changes in the industry from consolidation to improved air service; improved level of service. We have to get out there and highlight the opportunities for Montgomery and the River Region with the level of air service they have.

MBJ: How do you do that?

Gentry: We have to start by talking the stats …

MBJ: What type of stats?

Gentry: The on-time airline operating stats and where they connect to beyond the hubs. We’re technically one stop to the world.

MBJ: Those hubs are?

Gentry: Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas. Charlotte is a significant hub.

MBJ: Why is it a significant hub?

Gentry: It is one of USAir’s top hubs in their system and then you have Atlanta and Dallas, which are fortress hubs.

MBJ: What are fortress hubs?

Gentry: Continuous, rolling flights. A significant hub will have a bank of flights. A flight will come in and stay on the ground from nine minutes up to two or two and one-half hours. Those are called banks of time, but when you get into Dallas it’s constant. Now, we are served by the world’s largest airline – American Airlines with the merger. We have Delta with nine flights a day to Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport.

MBJ: Is perception one of the key issues with Montgomery Regional Airport?

Gentry: You hear about the once or twice horrible experience, but you don’t hear about the 15 to 20 great experiences. You don’t hear about the dozen times they came in early.

MBJ: Before you arrived, there had been a campaign that “I Fly Montgomery” and had well-known local personalities promoting the airport. How do you change that negative perception?

Gentry: You look at the data. At the end of the day, if you compare data with our neighboring airports … look at what is taking place in Birmingham; Columbus, Ga.; Jackson, Miss. Those three airports have seen a drop in the level of service. We had a 5 percent growth – a 5 percent increase in seats. In the state, Huntsville and Mobile and Montgomery have increased.

MBJ: What are your responsibilities as vice president of air service development?

Gentry: To focus on the level of air service and maintain it; improve the experience the customer has in the terminal; and utilizing the airport in economic development as an engine.

MBJ: Please elaborate about the airport as an economic development engine.

Gentry: When we lure corporations to Montgomery, we have a regional airport with a significant amount of air service. We don’t want them to think that we have just nine flights a day to Atlanta. We want them to (know) about the three flights a day to Charlotte and then there are three flights a day westbound to Dallas.

MBJ: Does that need to be expanded?

Gentry: It will expand when we fill up what we have.

MBJ: How close are the flights to filling up?

Gentry: It depends on each month. We are right at 70 percent load factors.

MBJ: Is that considered good?

Gentry: It’s considered good, but at the same time, don’t forget it’s a rolling scale. On a Saturday morning, the 6 o’clock departures are probably going out with one to five passengers. However, the flights on Fridays and Monday morning, they are leaving people at the gates. It’s how airlines survive.

MBJ: What is the outlook for adding destinations?

Gentry: We need to focus on what we have before we look at adding destinations. You’re going to three sizeable hubs that can get you anywhere. Our focus needs to be on getting the attention of the airlines that we’re serious in being a partner. We’ve had a lot of dialogue with Auburn going to the championship game – to get in front of the airlines to know that we are a partner and ask for additional service, even charters. The university was flying out of here. Southwest Airlines was coming here with five charters throughout the day.

MBJ: You’re talking about communicating.

Gentry: It’s a matter of getting on everyone’s radar that we are a partner. We have a great story to tell in Montgomery. The key thing to realize is that airlines are interested in business destinations. The airlines that we have – it’s imperative for us if we want to keep these airlines and eventually have larger aircraft – that will attract them as a business traveler. These carriers that serve us today, they are focused on the business traveler. They are about 80 percent business with about 20 percent leisure. At the end of the day, leisure travel and as popular as it is – there are a number of low-cost carriers that don’t have the allegiance to a community. They require high-load factors continuously and high ancillary revenue, meaning people willing to check five bags; buy X number of drinks. An airport has to be careful on how they proceed down that path in luring those carriers. You never want to neglect one carrier for another carrier. You want to partner with all of them.

MBJ: Have you reached out to the corporate level of the three airlines that service Montgomery?

Gentry: I’ve been in continuous talks with them. I’ve been in talks with American, but they’re in the middle of merging right now so a Montgomery is not a priority for them. Their focus is merging with US Airways.

MBJ: Earlier you said that Montgomery has a great story to tell. What is that story?

Gentry: It’s gone from a sleepy, Southern town to a vibrant, state capital. We’re growing – adding jobs. There were 277 new jobs added that protected 6,969 jobs. That’s impressive. We have companies investing in their businesses and the city is continuously trying to lure new business.

MBJ: That shows that Montgomery is a vibrant city and is important to business travelers.

Gentry: Exactly. It is important to bring Montgomery’s highlights to the airlines’ attention. When these major airlines are taking on mergers and consolidating, they don’t have time to keep up with all 200 cities they serve. It’s quite a task, especially since the airlines are very lean right now in their staffing and the people in network planning who decide the number of flights a day; the size of the aircraft; and what times. It’s important for us to be in front of them and tell them the story. The story has to be the truth. It has to be compelling. It has to back up the data they are going to look at. When people say they can save a hundred or so dollars driving to Atlanta, you have to ask yourself: ‘At the end of the day, that’s a four-and-one-half to five-hour drive. Here’s another thing – Atlanta will give you an experience, however that experience will not be the experience here. By the time you would get into the airport; check your bag or in some cases, a savvy business traveler will not check a bag, but print a boarding pass from home. By the time someone is on the east side of Atlanta – you’re sitting at your gate (in Montgomery) or before someone reaches the state line.

MBJ: The Continental flight from Montgomery to Houston was canceled. Was that a case of Continental not knowing what was going on in Montgomery?

Gentry: That was in 2008 when the country was facing a credit crisis and facing increased fuel costs. If you recall, there were three airlines they ended up filing Chapter 7 – one cargo and two passenger airlines. It was a critical time and airlines had to take down certain numbers.

MBJ: You talked before about being out in front – being proactive.

Gentry: Exactly. You stay in front of them and make your case. The airlines are going to do what helps their balance sheet. However, if you are out in front of them and explaining what’s on the horizon … My goal is to invite key airline individuals in and let them see what is going on here. The average Montgomerian does not realize we average 15 passengers a day from Montgomery to Seoul, Korea and Incheon. That is a significant number. I will almost guarantee you that Atlanta does not have that many people going to Incheon. That is a lucrative flight in the airlines’ eyes because for most companies if it’s longer than a 10-hour flight, their travel rules allow business travel. And now we’re back into the revenue we were talking about earlier.

MBJ: In this case, you can show how the flights to Korea are highly profitable.

Gentry: Yes, and at the same time my gut tells me that of those 15 (passengers to Korea), maybe one-third of that number are not counted because it’s on the road to Atlanta. That number could actually be higher from here.

MBJ: I understand you’re focused on the current flights, but is a direct flight to Washington a possibility?

Gentry: It’s definitely something we look at, but here’s the challenge: Geographically, if you draw a straight line to D.C. – that line will cross over two hubs. The airlines will argue the efficiency rating and we literally have an efficiency rating to New York and the Washington area and Boston area of 99 percent. It’s a goal we will attempt to achieve. As a state capital and with Maxwell Air Force Base – we are the only Southeastern capital city without non-stop service to Washington.

MBJ: What steps can be taken to improve the passengers’ experience at the Montgomery Regional Airport?

Gentry: We can look at a loyalty rewards program of using the airport. The world is pretty endless there – offering x number of days parking. One of the companies we’re reviewing right now offers a loyalty rewards program that’s transaction-based. The individual would set up the credit card they use so they can not only attract points from the airports they use, but expand to the hotels. Those points that are collected are distributed to any loyalty rewards program you have whether it’s with an airline or hotel.

MBJ: Any other programs or services being considered?

Gentry: We have a beautiful terminal. You can travel around the country and see airports with more flights than us and more passengers with not-as-many amenities. Everything is on the table to be looked at.

MBJ: Will there will additional retail outlets at the airport?

Gentry: We have the space. It’s a matter of having someone come in and give a shot at it. One thing we need to highlight here is that the airport has free WiFi. You get to Atlanta and there is no free WiFi. People like to point out to me that Birmingham recently added a fast lane for TSA. There is not a reason to add that here because you can (easily) clear the TSA lines even with a sizeable amount of traffic.

MBJ: What are your long-term goals?

Gentry: The key thing we will address is leakage.

MBJ: By leakage, you mean passengers going to other airports.

Gentry: Correct. It’s important for us to address this piece. The three long-term goals are: air service, and inside air service we are going to address the leakage; additional service, which could be additional flights or upgrade in aircraft size. And then community awareness.

MBJ: Can Montgomery’s main runway handle larger planes?

Gentry: Yes. There are no facility constraints.

MBJ: What does community awareness entail?

Gentry: It is a big piece to tackle the leakage. We are going to make the community aware of the initiatives and the data, which you will find if you look around the country at other airports compared to us when you talk about delays – we are all facing the same amount of delays. The challenge is the Air Traffic Control system on many flights they can handle. So you end with ground halts and ask (pilots) to slow down en route. This just isn’t Montgomery – it’s everywhere. Everybody faces the challenges and the advantage we have is we have a lot of concrete here. We don’t run into the long holds once you land. Some folks will experience a ground hold going into Dallas or Atlanta. When you taxi out, they will hold you on the ground.

MBJ: That’s definitely one of the advantages to a smaller airport – you don’t sit on the ground waiting for other planes to depart or arrive.

Gentry: Right. The topography is perfect here – it’s flat. The facility can support all weather types. The advantage is that we are a little south of that line, where we are not as susceptible to ice and snow.

MBJ: Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman of the Board of Directors Leslie Sanders said your role is one of an ambassador/lobbyist fighting for the airport.

Gentry: Sure. We are championing the cause of the airport. Again it comes back to: You don’t hear people talk about those 15 to 20 great experiences (at the airport).

MBJ: You’re saying that people don’t hear the good stories.

Gentry: You have to realize what all is involved in air travel. You are looking at the most-regulated industry in the world. Looking behind the scenes at what makes a flight run on time – just to move those passengers – and then people talk about the fare. It’s all based on availability. When the airlines are running at 70 percent load factors out of here - those cheap seats are taken up pretty rapidly.

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