Business Report

A direct flight from Baton Rouge to Washington, D.C., has emerged as the airport’s best chance for new direct air service this year, with American Airlines expressing “strong interest” in the endeavor by helping the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport obtain a grant extension from the federal government.

But the massive airline industry does few favors for smaller airports like Baton Rouge, says Jim Caldwell, the airport’s marketing and air service development manager.

“I would put it as our best prospect right now,” Caldwell says of service to D.C., which would be the airport’s fifth non-stop destination. But he adds, “You need to be able to fill a flight with enough people to go to a single destination.”

Travelers from Baton Rouge can currently fly to Dallas, Houston, Charlotte or Atlanta, and connect to hundreds of domestic and international flights from those cities.

Baton Rouge has for years faced the challenges of being in a smaller market than New Orleans, which is typically first to land more flights and airlines. Pilot shortages, market forces and the four biggest airlines dominating the market all hit smaller markets like Baton Rouge more than larger cities, Caldwell says.

“It’s a business, and sometimes you get surprised and something you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen,” Caldwell says. “It may not be enough to convince them that a BTR route can be profitable; they often need to feel that it will be more profitable than another route they currently fly before (they) move their resources.”

Allegiant, a smaller, specialized airline, sent Baton Rouge airport officials a preliminary schedule for service to Orlando in 2014, but pulled out of the market after problems with pilot availability.

American Airlines met with airport officials and business leaders from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber last fall to discuss investing in the market. In December, the airline wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation on behalf of BTR requesting an extension of a $408,000 grant that would be used as a revenue generator to any airline that adds nonstop service to D.C. That money includes a local match of around 20%, and Mayor Sharon Weston Broome has signed off on the extension.

Caldwell says the grant extension does not mean American Airlines has committed to bringing the service, which would land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in 2017. But it does make the D.C. service the likeliest possibility for new flights.

“They take that seriously. They wouldn’t write the DOT if there wasn’t some serious consideration right now,” he says.

Ralph Hennessy, the airport’s interim director, said in December he was working on landing Southwest Airlines, which would join American, Delta and United as the only airlines to service the airport. Talks have been continually underway with specialized airlines like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant as well.

D.C. is not the only destination airport officials are trying to secure. Orlando, Chicago and Las Vegas are high on the list as well.

Read a Business Report cover story about BTR’s efforts to attract business passengers.