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Taking off: Trenton Airport's rapid growth gives business travelers a new option

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Trenton-Mercer Airport will be flying nonstop to 17 destinations this summer.
Trenton-Mercer Airport will be flying nonstop to 17 destinations this summer. - ()

The sudden and rapid growth of Trenton-Mercer Airport can be categorized in so many ways. But it's perhaps best done with a simple game of pick a number, almost any number.

There's 20 — as in the millions of dollars the airport spent on renovations before a grand re-opening last November.

Or 17 — as in the total number of destinations (to 11 states) the airport will serve by the end of the summer with its 57 weekly departures.

Then there's 11 — as in the millions of people who live within 50 miles of the airport.

That number alone perhaps best explains why the county-owned airport has suddenly become a viable option for so many business travelers in New Jersey. And why it has become a major focus for Frontier Airlines, the only airline that serves Trenton at the moment.

"This is a different approach to Trenton than has ever been taken before," said Daniel Shurz, a senior vice president for Frontier.

Shurz plays up Trenton as an alternative to larger airports in the region, such as Newark and Philadelphia, in terms of pricing and traffic.

"Those airports are congested," he said. "Those airports are, generally speaking, high-fare locations."

Ones served by airlines that often route you first to a hub.

One of the beauties of Trenton-Mercer is that all of their flights are nonstops. And to attractive destinations.

Frontier's flights include trips to Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis, among others.

Not bad for an airport that had stopped commercial service for three years before starting it back up in 2011.

In terms of flight frequency, Trenton will never be able to compete with its larger neighbors. But it's not trying to, either.

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said when you take frequency out of the equation, he believes travelers prefer the benefits of Trenton's size over the larger airports.

"I think that people have such a hard time in Newark and such a hard time in Philadelphia ... that they would choose this as an alternative going to the same place on the same day," Hughes said.

To the delight of Hughes and others in the county, Frontier's success thus far hasn't been limited to the airline's boardrooms in Denver. For instance, the three hotels that sit closest to the airport have been reporting increased traffic, Hughes said.

"It may be something hard to quantify right now, but we know there's been an uptick in activity," Hughes said.

While Frontier is the only carrier at the airport right now, it may not stay that way for long, especially if service stays strong. Because Trenton accepts FAA funding, Hughes said it has limited say in who can and cannot fly there.

For Hughes, the reemergence of Trenton and some other smaller, regional airports represents a rethinking — or "evolution" — of air traffic altogether.

Take Atlantic City International Airport, for example.

Now operated by the Port Authority, the airport announced in November that United Airlines will begin offering daily nonstop flights to its hubs in Chicago and Houston starting in April. Spirit Airlines, formerly the lone carrier at the airport, also announced in January that it would resume seasonal service to Boston.

United spokesperson Mary Clark said that the airline believes launching flights out of Atlantic City can offer an alternative to Philadelphia for certain destinations.

But like other airports, it must also keep its end of the bargain, Clark said.

"It is not uncommon for an airline to test a market where there could be potential for growth," Clark said.

Which brings us back to Trenton and our numbers game.

Shurz is confident the business plan will work, but if you're looking out for new destinations on top of the 17 already announced, you may not want to read this number: 0.

Frontier has put a hold on adding new destinations for the time being. It's not that business is bad or trending down; it's because they're running near full capacity.

To accommodate more travelers, the airport will need to find more parking.

To add more airlines, it may need to add a gate or build another terminal.

In other words, become more like Newark or Philadelphia.

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com

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