Wilmington airport director thinks cheap Florida flights here to stay


WILMINGTON, Del. (CBS) — Avelo Airlines remains on track to launch cheap flights from Wilmington-New Castle Airport to Florida – from $49, according to a press release, although CBS3 found a few for as cheap as $39 – Feb. 1.

Great news for local travelers, of course. Trouble is, change the name of the airline, and news like that has emerged at least three times during the past two decades, only to be followed years or even months later by news – with less fanfare – that the same airline was departing just as surely as it arrived, most recently Frontier Airlines (which continues to serve Philadelphia and Trenton-Mercer) earlier this year.

What might be different this time?

“An airline that makes a commitment – a commitment that this is where their employees will be calling home,” Stephen Williams, the airport director, said.

In other words, Wilmington will be what airlines call a “crew base” for pilots and flight attendants, which Williams said should help with reliability too.

“These folks want to get home at night,” he said.

Williams said Avelo has signed a five-year service agreement with the airport.  

Flights to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach are bookable at Avelo Airlines; the airline doesn’t make its flights available on booking sites like Expedia and Kayak.

Delta launched Wilmington flights to Atlanta in June 2006, boasting the new Delaware flights made it the only airline serving all 50 states. Those flights ended in September 2007, according to a CBS3 analysis of Cirium schedule data.

Next came Frontier flights from July 2013 through April 2015. Then Frontier flights again from February 2021 through May 2022.

Compare that to Trenton, which Frontier has served consistently for a decade, or Atlantic City, which Spirit has served for 30 years.

Among commercial airports other than Philadelphia serving the Delaware Valley, why has Wilmington struggled more than the other two?

“Atlantic City and Trenton largely compete against Newark and Philadelphia, both higher-cost airports with some low-fare service,” said Ben Baldanza, who was CEO of Spirit from 2005 until 2016.

Wilmington’s geography, on the other hand, means it competes against Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington.

“And Baltimore just has lots of low-fare service,” said Baldanza, who now co-hosts the Airlines Confidential podcast and is a member of JetBlue’s board of directors. “Southwest is huge there. JetBlue, Spirit and Frontier all fly there.”

He said success breeds success: People within driving distance of Atlantic City have been flying Spirit for a generation and a half. And the airline has a maintenance base there – expensive infrastructure, which makes it less likely to cut service because of a momentary drop in demand.

Baldanza said there are also simply more people within easy driving distance of Trenton and Atlantic City – all factors that make the task tougher in Wilmington, although not impossible.

Williams said Avelo’s success will depend on marketing, not just the price of the flights but the total value of the experience – easy and cheap parking, for example. (When CBS3 visited, the airport was charging $5 per day, and it’s free for the first 60 minutes; Williams said pricing for once Avelo launches is still under evaluation.)

He said travelers will often find themselves ready to board a flight 30 to 40 minutes after getting out of their car – which to be clear, he emphasized half-jokingly, is not how long before a flight the airline and airport recommend arriving.

“We still want you to have an adequate amount of time to go through the check-in process,” Williams said. “But it is, in fact, a hassle-free experience.”

One-year-old Avelo was founded by a former executive of Allegiant Airlines – like Spirit and Frontier, a profitable “ultra-low-cost” airline but one that focuses more than Spirit, especially, on routes without direct competition.

Avelo’s largest base is at New Haven, Connecticut – south of far-busier Hartford – where service has ebbed and flowed over the years and never in the past 20 years, according to Cirium data, been as busy as it is now. From New Haven, Avelo serves a dozen cities – the five in Florida it’ll serve first from Wilmington plus others like Nashville and another Wilmington: the one near North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“If we could really duplicate that here in Delaware and in the Delaware Valley region, this could be a hit,” Williams said.

It already is one will Bill Oakes, selling Christmas trees across the street from the airport. He flew Frontier from Wilmington to Orlando and Fort Myers while he could. When Wilmington has no service, he flies from Philadelphia or Baltimore. So the new Avelo service?

“I can’t wait to get done with Christmas trees and hop on a flight,” he said.

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