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United Airlines Service to Atlantic City Airport -- Too Little, Too Late?

The only way new airlines will come is with staggeringly large subsidies, he says. The Port Authority is working on developing new business incentives but did not return several requests for comment. Last week, the board of the SJTA, which still owns the airport, was expected to vote on whether to allow the operator to move forward with the incentives but rescheduled the vote so that its attorney could further review the fine print.

A spokesperson for the SJTA referred questions about the subsidies to the Port Authority, but according to the meeting agenda, the authority is seeking to replace the current incentives program with two: one that would reward charter airlines for flying international flights into ACY and another that would provide undisclosed incentives to commercial airlines that establish new domestic routes or year-round international ones. The commercial plan calls for incentives to last two years.

However, Cartmell, of the ACA, which recently initiated its own $1 million per year incentive program to support planners who commit to at least 1,000 guest rooms for midweek off-season conventions, says two years isn’t long enough.

“Especially with conventions booking several years out,” she says, “two years isn’t enough time.” Marino concurs: “It’s never been hard to get major airlines to ACY. What has been so far impossible is to keep them after the subsidies run out.”

In his opinion, an airline receiving a major subsidy to operate flights -- no matter how full -- has no incentive of its own to advertise the service. So instead of using the time to market Atlantic City as a destination, airlines have applied their advertising dollars elsewhere. When the incentives dry up, so does the rationale for flight service.

“Even at the height of its popularity, airlines have discovered there is no market for people to fly to Atlantic City,” says Marino. “Now that the city is in decline, without subsidies why would anyone fly there?”

Cartmell says her agency is devising an advertising plan that will likely include direct consumer marketing and airline/hotel packages that urge conventioneers to extend their stay. United’s Clark says she’s not familiar with any advertising plans the airline may have.

According to Schaffel, advertising is a necessary start but not nearly enough. He says it will require bold thinking and action to delay bankruptcy for Atlantic City, which he predicts will occur as soon as 33 months from now. In his proposal to the CRDA and again last week in a conference call with ACA executives, he outlined the action he feels is needed. In order to save Atlantic City, he’s calling on Christie to negate his exclusive bet on it.

Instead of comping local players for rooms, food, entertainment and gaming, he posits, casinos should use that money to subsidize airplane seats on nonstop flights from 15 to 20 cities around the U.S. for a period of 10 years.

“The only way that sufficient funding can be raised for this effort,” he wrote, “is to actually go ahead and place a casino at the Meadowlands.”

He cites Jeff Gural, the Meadowlands’ owner and general manager, who has pledged to contribute a 50 percent tax on slot revenue in exchange for a casino license. This tax alone, Schaffel says, would generate $300 million to 350 million a year.

The result?

“Allowing Atlantic City to reinvent itself as a pure fly-in destination while the Meadowlands becomes the hub for drive-in traffic throughout the tri-state area,” he wrote.

Later, by phone, he concluded, “It is the only hope Atlantic City has.”

Tara Nurin serves as an occasional writing consultant for the Atlantic City Alliance.

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