Kinston might be the site of the Global TransPark, but travelers wouldn’t be able to get there easily by air anymore come the new year.

Delta Air Lines officials have announced that the airline will discontinue flights to Kinston from Delta’s Atlanta hub after Jan. 6. The move came despite $200,000 in local funds and other incentives that were raised to promote the service.

Kinston’s loss of all daily air service highlights the difficult many smaller communities have attracting and retaining air service.

Raising the bar

Although there is some demand for air travel from smaller communities, there often aren’t enough flyers going to any particular place at any one time to profitably fill up a plane. To get around that, airlines operate hubs, flying passengers going from various points (“spokes”) to a central station (a “hub”) to connect to a different flight to their final destination. This arrangement allows easy transfers to a large number of destinations, effectively placing much of the nation and beyond only a single connection away.

While the basic model remains as it was 10 or 20 years ago, the tools, the types of planes used, have changed in recent years. The aircraft of choice for serving smaller communities throughout the 1990s, 19-seat turboprops, are generally no longer economically viable today. Instead, larger aircraft, especially 50-seat regional jets, are used. The bigger aircraft require a greater amount of passenger demand to support. Several communities can’t consistently generate that level of demand.

As recently as 1999, 14 North Carolina communities had daily scheduled air service. Come January, there will be nine: Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro, Asheville, Wilmington, Fayetteville, Jacksonville, New Bern, and Greenville.

Delta comes — and goes

Among the locales losing service to US Airways’ Charlotte hub, then their only regularly scheduled flights, were Kinston and Hickory. The other three dropped cities were Rocky Mount, Winston-Salem, and Southern Pines. In early 2005 though, Delta officials said the airline would start service to both cities. Flights would be three times a day nonstop from its Atlanta hub, the world’s largest, to both communities. Kinston and Hickory each provided incentives to help attract the service.

Flights to Hickory lasted less than a year. Delta pulled out in January 2006. Hickory proved to be too close to Charlotte to attract enough passengers willing to pay a higher fare in Hickory needed to cover the greater seat-mile costs of regional jet service.

Service to Kinston lasted only a little longer. Early this year, Delta cut service back to two flights a day, before dropping the route entire.

“What it gets down to is that the route is not economically viable for Delta in the long run with all of the intensive competition from surrounding airports,” Delta spokeswomen Gina Laughlin said to The Free Press in Kinston. “Delta has to ensure that all of its planes are dedicated to routes that are going to be profitable.”

John Marshall, cochairman of the Lenoir Committee of 100’s Air Services Committee, attempted to put a positive spin on the situation to the newspaper. “Armed with the same grit and determination, we will now work hard to attract another air carrier to our airport,” he said. “Given our track record, we feel confident of success.”

As officials of the aviation-consulting firm the Boyd Group recently said, “The core drivers of enplanement growth are, and will continue to be, population and economic growth.” For Kinston, exactly that is the problem: It is near other cities that have air service, and Kinston’s economy is stagnant.

Part of Kinston’s problem is geographical. It is situated within 40 miles of three other, larger communities — New Bern, Greenville, and Jacksonville — that have air service. The 2005 populations of Greenville, 68,852, and Jacksonville, 73,121, each by themselves exceeds that of all of Lenoir County, 58,278, in which Kinston sits. Kinston’ population was 23,068. While New Bern’ population was much like Kinston, Craven County’s, 92,670, is significantly larger than Lenoir County.

US Airways operates eight flights a day from its Charlotte hub each to New Bern and Jacksonville and five flights a day to Greenville. Service is on a mix of 50-seat regional jets and 50 and 37-seat turboprop aircraft.

Delta is starting service to Jacksonville from Atlanta on Dec. 11.

Per-capita income in Lenoir County is lower than that of the other cities that have regularly scheduled air service. The N.C. Demographer estimates that Lenoir County’s population declined by 2.2 percent from April 2000 and July 2005. The projection for Kinston proper is worse, with a 2.6 percent population decline. By comparison, the state’s population as a whole is estimated to have increased by nearly 8 percent over the five-year period.

Kinston still will have scheduled air service of a sort though after Delta pulls out. Allegiant Air recently began twice-a-week service, on Mondays and Fridays, between Kinston and Orlando. Allegiant specializes in service between major tourist destinations — Las Vegas, Orlando, and the Tampa/St. Petersburg area — and second- and third-tier markets throughout the United States. In smaller cities in the western United States, the destination of choice is Las Vegas; in the eastern United States one or both of the Florida cities.

Allegiant uses secondary airports in both Florida markets. Instead of using Orlando International Airport, which receives flights by major carriers such as Delta, Southwest, and US Airways, Allegiant instead flies to Orland-Sanford International Airport, which is the Orlando-area destination of choice for Icelandair and various British charter airlines. Because of this, Allegiant’s flights, unlike those of carriers with hubs, offer limited opportunities to connect onward to other destinations.

Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.