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Agency hopes more carriers are in the cards

Airline returns to Atlantic City as AirTran prepares for a departure

A Margate-based charter flight operator is giving winter-weary travelers a new way to fly south, and filling a gap for Atlantic City’s airport as it works to stabilize its base of carriers.

A Margate-based charter flight operator is giving winter-weary travelers a new way to fly south, and filling a gap for Atlantic City’s airport as it works to stabilize its base of carriers.

Gold Transportation said last week it will resume seasonal service to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in January. It had offered service to Florida in the 1980s and early 1990s, before cutting the flights to focus on serving casino clientele, said John Trave, support services manager.

“We were tossing it around,” Trave said. “It was a good thing back when, so why not see about it again?”

The service also is a good thing for Atlantic City International Airport, where officials are working to bring in new service offerings amid the pending departure of AirTran Airways and ahead of the opening of a new $25 million foreign inspection station.

Bart Mueller, executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority that owns and operates the airport, said Gold’s new flights aren’t a major boon, but they’re helpful.

“I think every additional air service is part of the calculus of building the airport, considering we’re not a major hub,” Mueller said.

AirTran, which was acquired by Southwest Airlines in May, began serving Atlantic City in 2009, offering daily flights to Atlanta, a major air transportation hub. Citing the down economy and high fuel prices, AirTran announced in August that it would cease Atlantic City operations after the new year.

AirTran was granted a two-year subsidy when it came to Atlantic City, and through that subsidy, it has received a total of $4 million from the SJTA. Agency spokeswoman Sharon Gordon said a study by an outside firm showed the subsidy resulted in an economic benefit of $14 million to the region.

Mueller hopes the airport’s track record with AirTran and other providers will help attract new airlines and services. The airport served a record 1.4 million travelers last year, and Mueller said the airport’s staff and consultants are meeting regularly with airlines and service providers to communicate the airport’s low overhead costs and other strengths.

Officials are also tracking service shifts at other airports. For instance, Mueller said Southwest’s recent decision to end service from Philadelphia to Boston could create an opportunity for Atlantic City-to-Boston service.

The new foreign inspection station, set to open in May, will allow for new international flights. Mueller said the airport is in discussions with Spirit Airlines to offer service to the Caribbean beginning in late 2012. He said other international destinations will be added in consultation with the casino industry and other local stakeholders.

Gold Transportation will offer Thursday outbound and Monday inbound flights to and from Fort Lauderdale from January to April. Trave said he expects a range of clients, from snowbirds heading down for the season to executives taking long weekends.

Spirit Airlines also offers service to Florida, though Gold Transportation’s service has a flat fee of $150 each way, and a complimentary lunch.

Trave said he hopes travelers will opt for the relative ease of Atlantic City’s airport versus the delays and long lines of the Philadelphia or Newark airports.

That’s a selling point Mueller will also be pushing, too, both to customers and to airlines.

“We certainly do not want to be Philadelphia or Newark Liberty,” he said. “We want to be our own unique model that serves South Jersey and Atlantic City.”

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On Twitter: @JaredKaltwasser

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