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Supporting Local Air Service: Why You Should “Fly Huntsville” for Business and Leisure

Bill Swelbar, an airline industry strategist, says Huntsville is doing many things right, but we continue to see leisure travelers drive to the Nashville Airport. (Photo: Hiroko Sedensky)

By Claire Aiello
June 5, 2018

This article appears in the June 2018 issue of Initiatives magazine.


“Air service development is just plain hard.”

Bill Swelbar acknowledged that during a visit to Huntsville on May 7, when he spoke to investors in the Chamber’s Huntsville Regional Economic Growth Initiative (HREGI). What’s worked in the past doesn’t work today, due to multiple changes in the airline industry. That’s true for airports all across the U.S.

“Long term memories need not apply. This economy is different. This business is different. This business cycle is really different,” said Swelbar.

Swelbar said the most important aviation announcement of the year came on January 18, 2018 when Amazon announced the 20 cities it is eyeing for its second headquarters. The company sent a strong message that HQ2’s location must have connectivity.

Swelbar is a leading strategist for the airline industry and a research engineer in MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation, where he is affiliated with the Global Airline Industry Program and Airline Industry Consortium.

The big question on our minds: What is the key to boosting Huntsville’s air service?

Huntsville’s Strengths

The Rocket City is doing several things right, Swelbar said. He complimented the work being done at Huntsville International Airport to get our city in front of more airline network planners.
United recently added more flights and capacity, which has increased the number of seats available for travelers.

“United doesn’t have a large footprint in the Southeast, and they’re trying to grow that footprint,” said Swelbar.

Air carriers are also beginning to phase out their smaller regional jets in favor of larger planes featuring two classes of cabin service, with seating for up to 75 passengers.

“There’s lots of good things that come with the trend from bigger airplanes,” Swelbar said.

He emphasizes Huntsville is a business market, and HSV stays busy 5 ½ days a week. “It starts on Sunday night when all of the vendors fly in for the week and then they leave on Friday night,” said Swelbar.

“Leakage” of Leisure Travelers

HSV faces a real challenge in losing people to Nashville and Birmingham, especially Nashville, for leisure travel. BNA has seen major growth since 2010. Attracting a low-cost carrier is very tough for our market because Huntsville doesn’t have the number of daily passengers those companies are looking for.

“Some of the low cost carriers fly airplanes that are really too big for this market. Frontier and Spirit are flying 190-seat airplanes. You can’t support 190-seat airplanes. It’s hard to fill that airplane three or four times a day.”

Swelbar urged everyone to support Huntsville’s new Silver Airways service to Orlando. Then, more opportunities might come.

“The new mantra is retain what you have, enhance it, then expand it. You have to use it, though, or you’re going to lose it,” he added.

Call to Action

Huntsville’s air service team has several meetings lined up to talk with carriers about future enhancements. The Huntsville/Madison County Chamber is helping, and that’s where you come in. We’d like to gather the following information about your company’s air travel:

• City Pairs (ex: HSV-DFW, HSV-LAX)
• Number of Segments (the number of times traveling on each of your city pairs)
• Your company’s annual air travel budget

Specifics of your company’s travel will be kept confidential. We plan to share aggregate information with the airline carrier network planners in order to help improve Huntsville’s air service offerings. Please email your information to Robert Recker, our Senior VP of Investor Relations: rrecker@hsvchamber.org

Please visit http://bit.ly/HelpHSVAirService to read more Q&A with Bill Swelbar and learn why your information is so valuable to Huntsville.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Swelbar was in Huntsville for the Southeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives’ 2018 Annual Conference, and we thank the team at Huntsville International Airport for arranging it so he could be here to speak to our HREGI investors.