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As Spirit resumes Atlantic City service, high hopes for airport

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In light of Atlantic City's gradual transformation from a gaming hub to a full-service tourist destination, Atlantic City International Airport is looking to add more low-cost airline carriers and flight options outside of the traditional metropolitan area and Florida route.

"We sat down with the casino properties in 2008, when the recession hit and competition from other areas really kicked in. They realized they had to start bringing in people from outside of the driving (metropolitan New York) market," said Bart Mueller, executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the airport's owner and operator. "We listened to the properties and the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority when they said what cities they needed to bring people from, and they said Chicago, Boston and Atlanta. As they grow as a destination, if they want to bring in people from outside America, we'll now have the ability to do that."

According to Mueller, out of the nation's 800 airports, Atlantic City's is currently the 108th busiest, serving 1.4 million passengers a year. Mueller hopes to double its traffic by adding new direct flight options and low-cost carriers when it opens three new gates and a federal customs facility in 75,000 square feet of additional space this summer.

Mueller said the airport's loss of AirTran Airways, which was acquired by Southwest Airlines in May 2011, left a gap in the Atlanta route, until Spirit Airlines resumed its service today.

"What we did with AirTran was risk abatement, and it's not unusual for smaller airports wedged between two major markets — like we are with Philadelphia and Newark," Mueller said. "After AirTran provided the service (to Atlanta) for three years, it's not too surprising, from a business standpoint, that Spirit found Atlanta a very successful route."

On March 1, Spirit resumed daily service between Atlantic City and Boston, and on May 2 and May 3, it began to offer seasonal service between Atlantic City and Detroit and Chicago, respectively. Today, Spirit also added a second daily service to Boston. According to Mueller, Spirit's seasonal service between Atlantic City and Atlanta directly connects to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which he said "opens up traveling to and from Atlantic City to the entire network." Mueller said the SJTA is currently working with another low-cost legacy carrier to offer direct flights from the city to Dulles International Airport, in Washington, D.C.

According to Mueller, the non-peak season has always been a challenge for the airport, so he is hoping to work with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to "leverage their largess to help out another state-owned airport."

"At the end of the day, we both work for the same boss. Atlantic City is important, politically and governmentally," Mueller said. "I hope the Port Authority and SJTA can work more closely … for collaborative efforts on how we can help them with air space issues … and use our mutual resources to bring more flights here."

Mueller said the three new gates and federal customs facility should be operational by Labor Day, though he said he would "not be surprised if the ribbon-cutting happened in August." To prepare for its new international capacity, Mueller said, airport officials are talking to Spirit Airlines about offering a direct service from the airport to two or three Caribbean destinations by early 2013.

"There was just recently a delegation here from China to visit Atlantic City, and the airport to look at this as a market," Mueller said. "Once all of the low-cost carriers realize we have that tool in our tool box, we can give customers other options for travel. What our customer looks for here is the number one low-cost carrier airport in the country, but that could change, based on the needs of the business and the growth of the city."

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