When Gov. Chris Christie stood with the CEO of United Airlines last week to announce the arrival of the world’s busiest commercial passenger carrier to Atlantic City International Airport (ACY), he proclaimed, "It speaks volumes that a company like United Airlines recognizes the full and future potential of Atlantic City International Airport . . . The decision to bring air service to the seaside resort opens Atlantic City and ACY to the world.”
But two prominent Atlantic City analysts take a far more skeptical view that United, the latest in a string of major airlines to attempt service at ACY, can succeed where others have failed to reverse the well-documented downturn in the resort city’s fortunes.
Wayne Schaffel, a former Bally’s Park Place executive who now consults for New Jersey’s casino and tourism industry, warned, “It’s the 11th hour and Atlantic City needs airlines to succeed . . . They are the only hope Atlantic City has. Failure means the city will not be a viable business entity in 18 months.”
“Am I optimistic they’ll succeed? No,” echoed Tony Marino, a retired South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) worker who compiled the official travel and spending statistics for Atlantic City for many of the past 25 years. “A couple of years from now United will quietly pull these flights.”
With gaming revenues off 40 percent from their peak in 2006, Moody’s Investors Service downgrading the city’s credit last week, and Massachusetts joining Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut to legalize gambling, it’s clear Atlantic City needs to do something to stay solvent. And fast.
So within months of taking over airport operations from the SJTA, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) used its considerable leverage to convince United -- the most active carrier in New Jersey and New York City -- to begin running one flight per day to and from its hubs at Chicago O’Hare and Houston George Bush airports. Service starts on April 1, 2014.
Currently, Spirit Airlines is the sole company to fly regular routes through ACY. Though in the past Spirit scheduled direct service to Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Detroit, this offseason, it’s only flying nonstop to Florida and Myrtle Beach. Delta, USAirways, and Continental are among the major carriers to have maintained flights but all have left after approximately two years -- when their public subsidies ran out. AirTran was the last to leave, in January 2012, after its acquisition by Southwest.
United officials say they’re receiving no subsidies and that it’s common for an airline to test out smaller airports like ACY. They point to last year’s terminal expansion and the addition of a customs and border patrol facility as reason to hope that if they land it they will come.
“Atlantic City is an important tourist destination,” said United spokesperson Mary Clark, who added that if the airline senses a demand, it will extend A.C. routes to new cities. “With the expanded and refurbished facility, there’s lots of potential.”
But analysts argue that most of the airport’s current passengers are South Jersey travelers leaving the area. If they’re visitors, they’re likely flying in to visit family, not to spend money in A.C.
These observers say most of A.C.’s tourists drive from a distance within 75 to 100 miles (down from the 250 miles of more halcyon years), and almost all of the city’s marketing efforts are directed at Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. Schaffel argues those efforts are wasted on a client base already familiar with the city’s, offerings and aware that, unlike potential visitors farther away, Hurricane Sandy left this part of the Shore pretty much intact.