EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Atlantic City International Airport is buckling up this week for the start of the busy holiday travel season, but the facility already has hosted a record number of passengers this year.
Despite a sputtering economy and Atlantic City casino revenues that continue to plummet, the number of passengers on commercial flights was up 36 percent in the first 10 months of 2010 compared to the same period last year, according to Sharon Gordon, a spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the airport.
More people flew out of the facility in the first 10 months of this year than did in all of 2009, Gordon said.
Two-thirds more people flew commercial airlines from Atlantic City last month than in October 2009, she said. Officials estimate that the airport will surpass 2007, its previous best year, in number of passengers served.
Philadelphia International Airport does not anticipate an increase in travelers in 2010, according to Victoria Lupica, a spokeswoman for the facility. Year-to-date, she said, the number of passengers in Philadelphia is similar to 2009.
"I think what we're seeing is the fruit of our labor," Gordon said, noting the South Jersey authority's efforts to enlarge its market area, which now stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs to Monmouth County.
The strategy for the midsize regional ACY has been to lure business from the international airports in Philadelphia and Newark by offering a better travel experience: cheaper tickets, easier check-in, shorter wait times, fewer delays, and low-cost parking, Gordon said.
Long-term daily parking at Philadelphia International and Atlantic City is $20 and $12, respectively, according to officials.
ACY passenger totals got a major boost when the discount carrier AirTran Airways started flights in January. AirTran offers two nonstop flights a day to and from its Atlanta hub.
It and the airport's only other commercial carrier, Spirit Airlines, which also offers lower-cost fares, provide nonstop service to various Florida destinations; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Boston, and connecting flights to more than 50 worldwide destinations, including South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.
A national Bureau of Transportation Statistics report this year showed Atlantic City Airport to have among the lowest domestic airfares in the nation, with the average round-trip ticket costing $185 compared with a national average of $471.
While it is unclear how Southwest Airlines' recent acquisition of AirTran will affect flights at the airport, the authority is optimistic it will mean "good things" in the campaign to attract other airlines, said Bart R. Mueller, executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which also operates the Atlantic City Expressway.
The authority believes the airport's "stats allow potential carriers to see that we are continuing to grow and that our facility is a viable option for expansion plans they may have," Mueller said.
In the meantime, the authority is moving forward with construction of a federal inspection station that will permit the introduction of international flights.
The 4,300-acre facility, which is in Egg Harbor Township and Hamilton Township about 10 miles west of Atlantic City, is also home to the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which patrols the East Coast. It is adjacent to the Federal Aviation Administration's Technical Laboratory and an emerging aviation research park.
In 2009, Atlantic City Airport logged 120,000 landings and takeoffs - a fraction of the 500,000 comings and goings each from Philadelphia International and Newark Liberty annually.
The airport estimates that it will serve 1.4 million people - including those on charter flights - by year's end. Philadelphia International - which handled 31.2 million passengers in 2009 - expects 700,000 just in the 10-day holiday period around Thanksgiving.
With capacity to handle up to a million commercial passengers annually, Atlantic City last year announced its goal to get the airlines to shift up to 50,000 flights a year from Philadelphia.
Gordon said the airport was in continual negotiations with carriers to woo them to South Jersey. Among the attractions it touts are fewer flight delays, less-crowded airspace, and lower per-passenger fees and other costs airlines pay airports.
The newest arrival in the airport's main terminal is a 1,560-square-foot Hudson News and Euro Cafe.
"We have seen the growth that has occurred here and the potential for the future," said Frank Musciano, vice president of operations for the Hudson Group, a travel retailer with more than 1,100 newsstands, cafes, and stores in airports throughout the world.
The cafe, in a space that previously housed a leisure-clothing store, offers travelers light snacks, gourmet coffee, and pastry brought in daily from Mino's, a popular local bakery. Besides books and magazines, the shop sells Atlantic City souvenirs and gifts. The only other food outlet in the terminal is a bar with a limited sandwich menu.
"We love this airport. I'm thrilled when I see new amenities being offered," said Bonita Winters of the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township, who recently flew on Spirit Airlines from West Palm Beach. "It's still small and is like the best-kept secret. But on the other hand, I'm happy to see it expand so there are more flights going more places."
Winters said the ticket prices and ease of travel have brought her to Atlantic City Airport dozens of times.
"Whenever I have to fly, I would rather go out of here than Newark or Philly, because it's just so much easier," Winters said.
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or email@example.com.