July 11, 2014
On a typical day, 138 people fly from Port Columbus to San Francisco International Airport — and a similar number fly from the popular West Coast city to Columbus.
“You can get to San Francisco numerous ways, and the trip is relatively fast,” said David Whitaker, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority’s vice president of business development.
But you have to change planes.
That’s a situation Whitaker and the airport authority are trying to change, with the help of the 14-member Jobs, Expansion & Transportation — or JET — Task Force recently created by Mayor Michael B. Coleman.
They believe a nonstop flight between Columbus and the City by the Bay will have local economic benefits. San Francisco is the most-popular destination from Columbus that lacks direct service. It’s followed by Seattle.
“We have numerous business connections with San Francisco,” said Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer of the economic-development group Columbus 2020.
Bay Area companies with operations in central Ohio include Persistent System, Art.com, Stella & Dot and Restoration Hardware, he said, adding there are also large companies based here doing business in the San Francisco area.
“Battelle and Ohio State have research relationships with a multitude of companies and institutions in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley,” McDonald said.
Whitaker said the Columbus area is perfect for “the back-room type of operations for tech companies, because they can be done elsewhere where it’s less expensive, and this makes Columbus very attractive.”
The airport authority has long worked to add new, direct routes to and from Port Columbus. It was able to attract daily, nonstop service to and from Los Angeles last year.
The JET and airport authority have targeted United Airlines as the most likely carrier for the direct San Francisco service.
“They’re the best option. They already have a focus there with a hub,” Whitaker said of the airline carrier. “They have great connectivity from there, and they’re expanding flights from there, like Indianapolis.”
It might take a significant financial incentive to persuade United to offer service, as it did when the Indiana Economic Development Corp. landed a direct flight between Indianapolis and San Francisco that started in January.
The Indiana organization offered a one-year payment of up to $1.5 million.
The payment is tied to a sliding scale based on United’s revenue from the flights between Indianapolis and San Francisco.
“What we’ve heard from United are the flights are performing well relative to the cities they benchmark us against,” said Eric Shields, policy director of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.
“We’re optimistic that by the end of the year we will have demonstrated that this market will support the route and next year, United will keep it without the backstop from us.”
A similar type of revenue guarantee is necessary to get United to start the Columbus and San Francisco route, said Tory Richardson, the airport authority’s vice president for government affairs and strategy.
The airport authority could waive the landing fees for the first year of service and provide United with a one-time $75,000 payment that the airline would use to market the flight, Whitaker said.
Raising additional money “would have to be a conversation the community would have to have,” Whitaker said. The effort would have to involve the city, county and state and local businesses.