Low-fare airlines sought for Knoxville airport

Sevier attractions could benefit from expanded tourist market
Dec. 04, 2013 @ 11:01 PM

Sevier County has joined the Competitive Airfare Partnership, a joint effort to bring low-fare air carriers to McGhee Tyson Airport, which serves the Knoxville area. The partnership hopes to raise $3 million to recruit and retain at least one low-cost carrier.

Ken Maples of the Sevier County Hospitality & Lodging Alliance said that on Nov. 21, the partnership met with Sevier County political and tourism leaders.

"They were looking for three things," Maples said. "One, support and participation. Two, data so they can show low-fare carriers where tourists are coming from. And three, financial support."

Maples said the Competitive Airfare Partnership was primarily put together by the Knoxville Metro Airport Authority and the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, but organizers sought support from the surrounding area.

"They're reaching out to basically a nine-county region, the Knoxville region," Maples said. "I'd say it's an ongoing effort."

The $3 million goal for the project, Maples said, is a one-time incentive for a carrier to come to McGee Tyson Airport. "This $3 million will be used mostly for marketing and advertising to get folks on these planes," Maples said.

The money is expected to come from public entities such as participating counties, Maples said, as well as private sources.

"What they asked is that Sevier County matches what Knoxville and Knox County came up with, which is $200,000," Maples said. "$200,000 is a heck of a lot of money, but when you break it down over the three or four cities and counties, it's very realistic."

The money would be, Maples said, "a great investment for the long-term."

Maples said the Sevier County tourism market has always been a "drive-in market," meaning most tourists come from within a few hours driving distance. He thinks it will remain a strong drive-in market even if it is served by low-fare airlines.

"The key is, it's an opportunity to grow," Maples said. "We want to grow our tourism base to include those who come from 400-plus miles. Those folks also tend to stay a little longer."

At the Nov. 21 meeting, a presentation was given by

Sevier County's tourism is as a prime reason that a low-fare air carrier would be beneficial to the area, according to Dr. Steve Morse, economist and program director of Hospitality and Tourism in the College of Business at Western Carolina University.

Morse said that if a low-fare carrier is brought to Knoxville, Sevier County can reach an untapped market of tourism.

"The introduction of a low-cost airlines in Knoxville would lower airfares in and out of Knoxville, and would make the Sevier County leisure market more attractive to families now driving," Morse said. "History has shown that travelers will drive up to two hours to save when flying a low-cost airlines."

Morse said that several attractions could greatly benefit from a larger market area.

"The new LeConte convention center, and the new Rocky Top Sports Complex, and the new 300-room resort at Dollywood, would all be able to be marketed to groups that can fly in with competitive low-cost airlines," Morse said.

"If just 5% of the now drive-in market to Sevier County chose to fly instead, that would support many flights per day into the Knoxville airport," Morse said.

According to Morse's findings, travel spending for the market area of McGhee Tyson Airport is $8.33 billion, larger than the combined $6.46 billion spending in all South Carolina coastal counties, including Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Hilton Head, as reported by the US Travel Association.

Maples said he thinks that the high cost of flying into and out of Knoxville is something that needs to change, whether the new project is successful or not.

"Knoxville, I believe, has the fourth most expensive airport to drive from," Maples said. "We've got to do something about that. The only way is to do it collectively in the Knoxville region and try to bring those carriers in here. Otherwise we're driving to Nashville or Atlanta, and that's not all that appealing."