Published in February 2016 issue

A friendly airport surrounded by giants

In the upper east corner of the northern state of Indiana lies a tiny airport surrounded by three giants: Detroit (DTW), Chicago (ORD), and Indianapolis (IND). Striving to grow inthe shadow of these hubs, Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA) has managed not only to come out of the economic recession in excellent shape, but to develop a market in a region in which few would have predicted success for such a small airport.

By Enrique Perrella

FWA is located eight miles (13km) south of Fort Wayne, the second largest city in Indiana, and a mere 20 miles (32km) west of the Ohio border line. It’s home to diversified industries: vehicle manufacturing, defense, insurance, food processing, medical, and logistics. General Motors, BF Goodrich, BAE Systems, and Raytheon are some of the companies found in the area.

This emerging airport has not only performed incredibly well in the post-recession era, but it has been recognized as the Friendliest Airport in the Nation.

Airways was invited to have a little taste of this friendliness and chat with its director, Scott Hinderman. Scott took an entire day off to show us around the facilities of his airport and fly us by its rich past, present and future.

“Fort Wayne is a great community of many small businesses,” Hinderman said. “We don’t have Fortune 100 companies with headquarters here; what we do have are many 100-employee companies that are well diversified.” It’s an airport tailored for its region. “We serve not only the city of Fort Wayne, but also Northeastern Indiana, Northwestern Ohio, and Southern Michigan.”

In recent years, FWA has experienced degrees of both growth and decline. Since its early days, the airport has expanded to over 3,700 acres, maintains three active runways, and has developed over 250 buildings for its commercial, general, and military aviation activities.

Its small terminal houses five airline counters, eight gates, a small section dedicated to the Greater Fort Wayne Aviation Museum, a full-service restaurant, a coffee shop, a gift shop, and a Welcome Center staffed by volunteers eager to help incoming passengers with information about the city and its surroundings. The terminal’s layout is simple, with the ground level hosting all the airline and car rental counters, the restaurant, and the baggage claim area; and the upper level set for departures and the aviation museum.

THE OLD DAYS AT FWA

Originally named ‘Baer Field’, the airport was constructed in 1941 as a World War II military base. During the war, over 100,000 military staff were stationed at the base, which, at the time, consisted of a runway and over 100 buildings used to house the troops as they prepared to fly overseas.

After the war, the federal government sold the airport to the city of Fort Wayne for one dollar. In 1946, it was officially named Fort Wayne Municipal Airport, a name that lasted until the early 1990s, when it took on its International status and designation.

Two carriers started flying into FWA immediately after the end of the war: TWA and Memphis-based Chicago & Southern Airlines (later absorbed by Delta Air Lines [DL] in 1953). United followed, launching operations with a sole Douglas DC-3.

The airport’s main terminal was inaugurated in 1953, replacing the former military buildings that were scattered throughout the airfield. The structure boasted its own control tower and a beautiful observation deck.

Robin Wearley, a former Flight Attendant for Hughes Airways, a private Pilot, and now a renowned Physician Assistant, was born and raised in Fort Wayne and fondly remembers those years. “I enjoyed the observation deck upstairs, from where we could watch airplanes take off and land,” she said. “My very first flight as an unaccompanied minor was on a DL flight out of FWA. This was in the late 1960s. The Flight Attendants (FA) moved me up to an empty First Class seat, and that was probably my first recollection of interacting with FAs and thinking about that as a fun job.”

The first jet services at FWA started in 1967 with United Airlines (UA) and its Caravelles. These were followed by DL, with Douglas DC-9s, and American Airlines (AA), with Boeing 727s.

In the early 1980s, the airport updated its main terminal building by including jetways to handle the increase in air traffic brought about by the Airline Deregulation Act. New carriers started flying into FWA: Piedmont Airlines, Republic Airlines, and Air Wisconsin. This last airline also had a maintenance center that remained active until the 1990s, when it was transferred to Shuttle America, US Airways Express, and, ultimately, Endeavor Air, which still uses it today for its SkyWest division.

In 1985, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority took over Baer Field’s management. It now owns and operates the airport.

FWA’S GOLDEN ERA

The 1990s were FWA’s golden age. The airport expanded its terminal, upgraded its runway and taxiways, and launched a formal marketing plan to attract the public. However, legacy carriers still regarded FWA as a secondary airport. DL ended mainline service from its Atlanta (ATL) hub, transferring all FWA flights to its Delta Connection regional jet service. This was a major change, as DL had been the airport’s longest-serving airline, having been present at FWA since its inception in the guise of Chicago & Southern Airlines. Other legacy carriers followed: AA, UA and Northwest (NW) limiting their services to regional jets.

Despite the legacy carriers downgrading their aircraft to and from FWA, in 2000, the airport experienced record traffic with 360,117 enplanements—a figure that remains unbeaten to this day. That surge in traffic came to a sudden halt, however, with the September 11 attacks, which severely affected the aviation industry globally. In 2001, enplanements declined almost 15%.

FWA’s traffic volumes remained low until the first Low-Cost Carrier (LCC), ATA Connection, began flying there from Chicago-Midway (MDW). The demand for these flights was such that the airport’s management purchased the on-site hotel and transformed it into a large parking lot.

In 2006, FWA inaugurated a new control tower. At 210 feet (64m), it overlooked the entire airfield, from the cargo hub all the way to the military base.

In 2007, the Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier (ULCC) Allegiant (G4) launched flights to Tampa (TPA), Orlando-Sanford (SFB), Myrtle Beach (MYR), Punta Gorda (PGD), Phoenix (PHX), Las Vegas (LAS), and Fort Lauderdale (FLL). However, the airline halted flying to PHX and LAS until it introduced the Airbus A319 to its fleet. The fuel savings this airliner offered—against the aging MD-80—allowed Allegiant to perform these lengthy flights at much more efficient figures.

DODGING THE RECESSION

Surprisingly, the 2008 recession didn’t hit FWA as hard as it did similar airports.

Few airlines withdrew services from FWA and the passengers kept coming.“Yes, from the passenger perspective, we managed to get out of it in good shape,” Director Hinderman said. “But, from the cargo perspective, it hit us pretty badly.”

Badly, because the airport’s primary cargo partner, Kitty Hawk Aircargo, went belly-up. “The $150 barrel situation took out our primary air cargo partner,” Hinderman explained. “It had anywhere from 25 to 35 flights every night. Many Boeing 727s and 737s would come in to drop and pick up cargo. FWA was their hub and sort facility.”

When FWA lost its Kitty Hawk revenue, it had to adjust. “We had to tighten our belts, look at our expenses, and make sure that those facilities remained marketable,” Hinderman noted. “And, thanks to that, today, those facilities are 100% leased out to several companies.”


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GROWING, COMPETING, IMPROVING

Hinderman is not the average airport director with a list of duties to fulfill every day.

“We are a team of people who love what we do. Our public relations team is also involved with the operations department. I do everything I can to make sure the airport is up and running and everyone is happy,” he proudly noted. “Unlike at major airports, where the personnel have specific tasks, we all do everything here. It’s a lot more fun!”

FWA is, in fact, an airport unlike any other. Being so close to the major hubs of DTW and ORD, and to the state’s main airport in Indianapolis (they are all within a 200 mile radius) could be a worry for FWA. But Hinderman thinks differently. “Choice is good. I want to have competition,” he said. “It makes us better.”

Hinderman believes that the services his team offers in FWA are much more convenient and less expensive than those offered elsewhere.

“We distinguish ourselves from the rest because we provide great customer service,” he said. “If you’re from outside of the region, you’ll notice we’re much friendlier than anywhere else in the country. The people who work here are local, and we love to show the world how friendly we are.”

How friendly? “We welcome people home with a freshly baked cookie,” he said. “We provide a distinctive your-own-town-airport feel. And that’s what helps us differentiate ourselves from the other airports and communities in the region.”

Moving on to economics and tangible differentiators, Hinderman said that FWA’s services are very similar to those offered at DTW or ORD—but with a significant advantage.

“When you fly out of FWA, you get on a legacy carrier,” he said. “If you drive up to Detroit, you’ll also get on a legacy carrier, but you have to drive three hours north.”

This, for him, is the crucial edge. On the airport’s website there’s a travel cost calculator into which passengers can type in their airfare cost; the system then calculates how much it would cost and the time it would take them to drive, park and return to the competing airports in Chicago (ORD), Dayton (DAY), and Indianapolis (IND), taking into consideration the average mínimum wage in the State.

“FWA does very well,” he said.“We provide a great service to our community, offering direct connectivity to seven major hubs in the US, which link to the world with just one connection.”

AN EXPENSIVE AIRPORT TO FLY TO

As far as pricing is concerned, though, FWA isn’t the cheapest option, and Hinderman is well aware of it. A flight from ATL to DTW costs around $250, while ATL to FWA costs up to $700. “Yes. That’s true,” he conceded. “The airline-pricing model plays a big role in fares to and from FWA. The fewer the available seats airlines have, the higher the fares are. And, truth be told, our sales are up. Continuously.”

“It costs the airlines no more and no less to fly out of FWA, rather than DTW,” Hinderman maintained. “Our cost per enplanement is $7.08— much less than Detroit’s $10.49 or Chicago’s (ORD) $16.53. It’s not that much and it won’t make a big difference in the total cost of the airline ticket. But the real differentiator here is capacity.”

According to the Federal Department of Transportation, even though FWA is a small airport, with traffic reaching the 300,000 mark every year, its airfares are continuously growing. “The average cost of an FWA airfare is growing at a lesser rate than those of airports all the way around us,” Hinderman said. “From the consumer perspective, that’s a concerning issue. They can’t afford paying for themselves, driving to another airport, and be better off, economically.” However, things look different from the carriers’ perspective. “As an airline, if the fares are a Little higher, they may bring additional service to our market, rather than to that of an alternate airport, because they are able to extract more money from our consumers than at any other location our size.”

When asked about growth, Hinderman takes a measured approach. “I do believe that growth has to be staged,” he said.“We’re currently selling almost all the seats we’re offering. Our current infrastructure is designed to hold only so much traffic, so our growth needs to be carefully addressed. It’s working real well for us.” And, indeed, FWA’s capacity could have reached its peak, but delays and cancellations are almost never seen at this airport.

Part of this accomplishment is due to the 24- hour control tower and full-time snow removal squad that’s always ready to act in wintertime. The Airport Authority has heavily invested in topnotch equipment to guarantee that FWA operates flawlessly all year round.

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LACK OF LCC SERVICE

Despite its growth in capacity and the introduction of new routes, one curious fact is that FWA doesn’t cater to any major LCCs. Southwest (WN), JetBlue (B6), Frontier (F9) and Spirit (NK) have all stayed away, preferring IND instead. “I think they’re interested in coming to us, but maybe just not today,” Hinderman stated. “They’re watching FWA very closely. They’re watching our increased capacity, the new routes our current partners are offering, and our success in growth after the recession.”

Even though these major LCCs have stayed away, Allegiant is playing a big role in the capacity increase at FWA, having five destinations and sometimes bringing in its Boeing 757 during spring break and summertime. “It fits a wonderful niche and is a great partner for FWA. But it’s not a giant hub-and-spoke airline—it’s a point-to-point carrier catering for a niche.”

Coming back to the high airfares, the entry of LCCs could lower prices and better serve the community. Hinderman, however, seems to disagree. “Initially, I think that there would be an adverse impact on the carriers, especially to those destinations to which the LCCs would be opening services,” he said. “In the long term, however, their product differentiation would be key. For instance, the routes Allegiant flies from FWA haven’t been affected by other airlines flying there too. TPA is doing well with both DL (via ATL) and Allegiant. So, in the end, it’s all about offering a product that caters to different likes and needs.”

However, in the hypothetical case that an LCC were to launch services to a major legacy carrier hub (such as WN flying to ATL), Hinderman believes that capacity will be challenged by DL, tilting the scale in its favor by offering more connectivity and seat availability.

FWA’S FUTURE

FWA is a growing airport in both comercial and general aviation. The Airport Authority has invested in a brand-new world-class general aviation fixed-base operation (FBO) as part of a master plan that has strengthened the airport’s infrastructure, all the way from its taxiways, runways, and ramps, to opening up new concessions, hangars, baggage claim carousels, and a recently inaugurated large rental-car facility.

In September 2016, FWA will host its second air show/open house, during which both military and civilian aircraft will perform flight displays and which the Indiana community will be able to attend for free. The first edition of this air show was held in 2012, with more than 83,000 visitors checking in.

Robin Wearley is confident that FWA will continue to offer the hospitality of a little local airport but with big hub amenities.

“Baggage claim is right there and luggage is delivered in minutes,” she said with enthusiasm. “On departure, it is one of those sweet deals where you park and walk in to the terminal. There is a dedicated TSA pre-check line, and the little business center upstairs is a great place to work,with fast and free WiFi. If you have time to kill, there’s an airport-themed children’s play area and a sweet little aviation museum with memorabilia from the airport’s history and notable local aviators upstairs. The airport is always clean and tidy, bright and welcoming.”

“Either way, though it has evolved over the decades, FWA has continued to maintain the heartfelt hospitality that Midwesterners are so well known for,” she added. “I hope that never changes,” Wearley said.

The hard work and determination of Hinderman and all of FWA’s management have taken this little airport down the road to success.

FWA is an example that should be followed by similar-sized airports across the nation.

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