VA: Elite Cancels Service from Newport News to Myrtle Beach

March 10–Elite Airways announced Friday that it has canceled plans to fly to Myrtle Beach from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, saying the passengers weren’t there to support the flights to the South Carolina tourist destination.

But Elite says it’s still hoping to launch service from Newport News later this year, saying it’s looking particularly at routes to Florida.

The Myrtle Beach service was to begin April 6. But bookings — on two flights per week — were not where they needed to be a month from the service’s launch, the airline said.

"We had high hopes for start of service at Newport News, but the demand for this particular city pairing wouldn’t have been sufficient to proceed," John Pearsall, the president of Elite, based in Portland, Maine, said in a statement. "We are exploring other routes out of Newport News to popular Florida destinations later in the year, which we believe could drive stronger demand."

Michael Giardino, the Newport News airport’s executive director, said his understanding is that "bookings were light" for the Myrtle Beach route, and didn’t meet the airline’s threshold. "My understanding was the numbers just weren’t there," Giardino said. "They’re not going to do it for free. … That’s the nature of the business."

But Giardino said Myrtle Beach "was not in the portfolio" of destinations that the community and the Peninsula Airport Commission had sought in the first place. He said he’s working with Elite — as well as other airlines — to launch service from Newport New to the Sunshine State and elsewhere.

In 2014 the Peninsula Airport Commission quietly voted to use taxpayer funds to guarantee a $5 million line of credit for the longshot startup People Express Airlines. The airline launched in June 2014, but went out of business within three months, after drawing $4.5 million on the line of credit,…

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"I would implore any air service to fly to Florida," Giardino said. "But they’re going to choose where they want to go. We’re talking with the airlines about a lot of different places, to be honest."

Giardino said he’s had "really good conversations" with Elite and believes they will still come to Newport News. "I think they believe that they can succeed here," he said. "We haven’t had the service that we deserve."

"But we want to make sure that whatever we start is sustainable," Giardino said. "That’s important for everybody, whether that’s Elite or anybody else. It’s up to us to find the service and work with the airline. They usually offer bargain sales at first, and we advertise and do what we can. … And the customers speak with their pocket books."

Elite first announced in December 2016 that it would fly out of Newport News.

That announcement — which touted nonstop flights to Long Island, N.Y., and Newark, N.J. — promised desperately needed service at an airport that has struggled for passengers ever since AirTran Airways left the market six years ago.

But a month later, Elite — citing "challenging perceptions surrounding the airport" — said it was putting its Newport News launch on hold. The airline was concerned that "various headlines" about the Newport News airport could cast a negative light on its operations, airport officials said.

By that point, the Daily Press had published dozens of stories on a controversy that centered in large part on the Peninsula Airport Commission’s 2014 decision to guarantee a $5 million line of credit for People Express Airlines. When that startup airline collapsed three months later, the airport quietly used $4.5 million in taxpayer money to pay the tab.

Late last year, the airport reached a $2 million settlement with a bank and law firm.

In December, Giardino — who took the helm as executive director in November — told the airport’s board that he had recently talked to Pearsall and had a positive vibe about Elite still coming to Newport News.

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"We’re still on Elite’s radar," he told the board. He also referenced ground-handling equipment that the Newport News airport purchased to handle such services for smaller airlines.

"We may be using that equipment pretty soon," Giardino said.

When it first announced it was coming to Newport News in late 2016, Elite stood to get an incentive package worth up to $1.7 million to come here, according to numbers provided by the city and airport last year.

That is, Elite was to get up to $900,000 in revenue guarantee and other incentives from a regional body that funds airline incentives — the Regional Air Service Enhancement committee. The airport offered another $800,000 in incentives, including fee waivers and free advertising. Such incentives are still on the table, city and airport officials have said.

All passengers who bought tickets on Elite Airways out of Newport News have been contacted and are being fully refunded, the company says. They can also call the airline at 877-393-2510.

Peter Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749 or by email at pdujardin@dailypress.com

___ (c)2018 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Visit the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) at www.dailypress.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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