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A.C. Airport revs up effort to boost traffic

Backers hope airline carriers will start services to markets such as Chicago and Atlanta.

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - As Atlantic City struggles with the recession and plunging casino revenue, an effort is under way to lure more airline carriers to start service to and from Atlantic City Airport.

Backers of the effort say it is essential if the resort is to become the kind of destination that people from all over the nation come to, rather than remaining the province of bus-riding day-trippers.

A few weeks after it began, the effort has already had one modest success: Spirit Airlines, the only regular carrier operating at the airport, announced it will begin service between Boston and Atlantic City on May 1.

A coalition formed to promote the airport is targeting new markets in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and cities east of the Mississippi.

Bart Mueller, executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the airport, said the effort to lure new business is due in part to the hard times the Atlantic City region is experiencing.

"I've always been a believer that out of catastrophe walks opportunity," he said. "Some of the conversations we're having now we would not have been having six months ago, and that's a good thing."

The effort is backed by most of the city's 11 casinos, as well as the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.

Spirit Airlines has the airport pretty much to itself; it is the only regularly scheduled carrier operating out of Atlantic City, flying to limited destinations in Florida, South Carolina and parts of the Caribbean, with connecting service to Latin America.

But several charter operators also fly to and from Atlantic City. The airport averages 14 to 16 flights a day, and handled 1.2 million passengers in 2007.

In contrast, Newark Liberty International Airport handled more than 37 million passengers last year.

Located in Egg Harbor Township, about 13 miles from downtown Atlantic City, the airport touts itself as a less crowded, easier-to-get-to alternative to larger international airports in Newark and Philadelphia.

It was established in 1942 as a naval air station on 4,312 acres leased from Atlantic City. In 1958, the lease was transferred to what is now the Federal Aviation Administration. Scheduled airline service was suspended from 1971 to 1978, when USAir, the former Allegheny Airlines, began operating there.

The transportation authority clearly believes the airport will get more traffic. Future plans include an $18 million terminal expansion, a $10 million apron expansion, a hotel and conference center, and freight and cargo development.

A new baggage-screening facility was recently completed as part of a $7.1 million airport renovation, and a $24.5 million, six-story, 1,400-space parking garage opened this summer.

Spirit said it was pleased by the upgrades in Atlantic City, and by the potential in Boston.

"We are thrilled that these communities are creating the right environment for Spirit to continue to grow [in] these important focus cities," said Barry Biffle, Spirit's chief marketing officer.

The authority is considering lowering landing fees for new carriers for the first year they operate at Atlantic City, and will engage in joint marketing efforts with them. About $150,000 in marketing will be spent for Spirit's new service, Mueller said.

Airport expansion in Atlantic City will be welcomed by the city's casinos, which have been hit hard by the recession.

This will be the second straight year of declining casino revenue after 28 consecutive years of increases. The industry's woes began when slots parlors opened in the Philadelphia suburbs two years ago, taking many of Atlantic City's customers, and worsened in recent months, first when gas prices shot up, then when the economy nose-dived.

For the first 11 months of this year, Atlantic City casinos won $4.2 billion from gamblers, down 6.7 percent from the same period last year.

"Atlantic City's revenues have been challenged as many visitors within the drive market are being pulled away by slot parlors in New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware," said Maureen Adams, vice president of national casino marketing and sales for Harrah's Entertainment, Inc., which operates four casinos in Atlantic City. "Expanding service at Atlantic City Airport will make Atlantic City's casinos, shops and restaurants convenient to a previously untapped market of visitors."