December 17, 2007

Tom Bona Interview

Here are the answers to the five questions that I asked Tom Bona of the Rockford Register for our second ever blog interview. Thanks Tom!!!

1) How important has the recent success of Rockford been to the City of Rockford itself?

So far, the main benefit has been for companies that use UPS regularly, because UPS has its second-largest sorting hub here.

It remains to be seen exactly how much the city will benefit from the airport's more recent success, but local leaders do feel it will have a very good economic impact. They expect to see not only an increase in cargo carriers at the airport, but more distribution centers, freight forwarders, trucking companies, etc., pop up nearby. They also see more aircraft maintenance and aerospace jobs, which would pay more than distribution jobs.

The increase in passenger service has somewhat benefited gas stations, hotels and restaurants, but the real benefit for those businesses is down the road, if passenger totals approach a million or more a year.

I think everyone would agree that RFD to date has largely untapped its potential as an economic driver, but if the developments being sought work out as planned, it could really help rev up the local economy.

2) Do you think Rockford could be where they are today without your Airport Director, Bob O’Brien?

Bob has been very important as a salesman for the airport (both to potential passengers and airlines) and as a tireless, energetic public face. He dares locals to dream big about the airport, and clearly articulates how he thinks it can reach those dreams. Having someone who can both think big and articulate a clear vision for getting there is key.

But - and Bob would be the first to say this - the credit also goes to the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. The board hired Bob because they wanted big things for the airport and wanted to buck conventional wisdom that it couldn't draw passengers in the shadow of O'Hare. They've backed him in his efforts to bring more passenger and cargo service here, have funded initiatives and also pushed him to do as much as he can. You can have the most dynamic airport director in the world, but if the people who hired him or her aren't dynamic too, it doesn't mean much.

3) What role do you think Rockford’s Miles Ahead program has played in the success of Rockford?

It has at least 23,000 people outside of our county (and another 10,000 in the county) at least thinking about Chicago Rockford International Airport. They in turn could be passing information to their friends. I know the recent "Big Event" promotion where they gave $30 to $100 cash back to anyone buying tickets sold 600 tickets. They basically spent $35,000 in "advertising" to sell those tickets, get people in the door, give them a good experience when they fly and hopefully get them returning. They do smaller promos all the time, and those have at least played some role in getting people in the door. The proof will be if numbers continue to advance.

4) What role do you think Free Parking has played in the success of Rockford?

Free parking is huge because it is one of the single biggest differentiating factors in getting customers away from O'Hare (and to a lesser extent, Milwaukee). It's part of the "hassle free" brand the airport is trying to create - come here and it'll be easier and cheaper.

5) What do you think lies ahead in the future?

Allegiant is going to continue to grow - they've indicated they want to add one more domestic destination, one Caribbean or Mexican destination and several "niche destinations" to their system in the next few years. Rockford would continue to get most of those, it would appear. United will likely stay put, but it's not clear if it would add flights or destinations … it doesn't seem likely right now. The big question is whether the airport can get another "name brand" airport or two for it to grow as fast as officials want. That would be someone like Southwest, Jetblue, Skybus, ATA, etc. … and with the industry what it is, who knows their intentions? You can bet, though, the airport will continue to market itself like crazy to the western Chicago suburbs and southern Wisconsin and, if numbers continue to increase, some airline will listen. The thing naysayers forget is, RFD isn't marketing to all of Chicago, just the people who are as close or almost as close to here as to O'Hare.

On the cargo front, I can see a couple of carriers bringing some of their operations here next year, and more joining them later on. There are plenty of economic reasons for cargo carriers to come here: it's cheaper, has good transportation infrastructure, has the runway lengths and an airport staff willing to bend over backwards for them. I think you'll see big cargo growth sooner than passenger, but the possibilities for both are there.

Thomas V. Bona
Staff writer
Rockford Register Star


Anonymous said...

Rockford blogger

Tom hit home runs on all the questions from my view. Additional comments:

* Would love to see United add flights to Denver and/or increase aircraft size to 70 seat regional jets. I do not see it happening but should United pull out, I believe it would not take long for Frontier to commence operations. Also would love to see United fly to their Washington DC hub.

* Getting one of the name low cost airlines here would be huge. Tom mentioned Southwest, JetBlue, ATA, and Skybus. Any or all would look great and I believe do great to the right routes. Express Jet (their branded operation) I think could also work to the right destinations.

* Myrtle Beach Direct Air is apparantly considering service in 2008. They would be seasonal, public charters. Also Kenny Tours, out of Maryland, is looking at RFD, Niagra Falls and others to operate seasonal charters to Ireland. While not the name brand low cost carriers, I think each would add nicely to the service mix at RFD

Bill Randell said...

What truly amazes me is how we only need to follow the example that Rockford has laid out for ORH. There is no need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants. In fact we should work with airports like Rockford, hey why not even make a hub for secondary airports in the NorthEast?

In the end I can not thank Tom Bona enough for taking the time and effort to help us out.

Anonymous said...

Guys, Is UPS what is keeping RFD on the map?? If UPS has it's 2nd largest hub nearby.....then there HAS TO BE quick & easy ACCESS??

Todays T&G:

Maybe if we place a yellow collection box at will put the place on the map and on the councils agenda? Yellow boxes = pols creating problems/issues where there are none. So if I am junk shootin' addict after I inject or snort........I am going to walk a 1/4 mile to properly dispose of my needle....Christ almighty, I prob wont even be able to walk? More infrastructure for an already overburdened city to maintain. Absolute insanity!

See the reality TV show gal has a nice cushy custodial job line dup in Douglas at $17/hr + a full bennie pacakge. Guess the Town of Douglas takes its que from Worc. Kinda sad when I can Hire a custodian for 9-10$/hr and little/no bennies. Yet Caradonio will be weeping and moaning about the lack of money for schools......but he says and I paraphrase: "Outsourcing custodial services will decimate our family of school employees." And not outsourcing will decimate my bank account.

Anonymous said...

Looking at RFD on a map or satellite photo gives a pretty good idea of the difference between them and ORH: (like Jahn said ...)Access.

There's a full cloverleaf intersection nearby that looks almost dedicated to airport traffic, coming off U.S. Route 20, which is a divided highway out there. That makes it so much easier for both passengers and cargo.

Also, the NIMBY factor is bound to be much less. I'll bet that there's more acceptance of the airport in Rockford than there is in Worcester -- they actually seem to want the place to be a success.

To my mind, those are the big differences between RFD and ORH. Unfortunately, ORH's location leaves a lot to be desired. Even more unfortunately, neither the neighbors nor those in control seem to want ORH to thrive.

Bill Randell said...


It is all how you market/sell the airport. If we had free parking and the right flights, people would get there. How do explain the success in the early 90's when the airport had the same access issues?

I am not saying that the airport needs better access, it does and an exit off the Mass Pike on to Route 56 would provide that access. That does not mean, however, that this airport could not be a success now!!


Anonymous said...

Good point about free parking. It's rather odd to have to pay when there's not even scheduled service at an airport! Of course, the only time you'll see "Massport" and "free parking" in the same sentence will be something along these lines: "Massport has no plans to offer free parking."

Marketing certainly is key, but it's going to have to encompass more than the airport itself. An airline might be able to get by with whatever O&D traffic it can draw from Central Mass., but it would be far better if the area was marketed to a broader audience (think state Office of Tourism bucks). And you'll need to market ORH as a sensible alternative to BOS, PVD, etc.

I think the main difference between now and the early '90s is the rise of LCCs. Back then, there was little or no local presence by Southwest or JetBlue. These days, given the generally favorable reputations for both of those airlines, people are willing to drive a little further and maybe save a few dollars on airfare.

Two more LCCs -- Skybus and Virgin America -- posted disappointing quarterly results this week. (No one expected either to turn a profit in their first quarter of operations, but both were pretty dismal.) If there's a silver lining there, neither's at ORH. Just imagine either of them going bust while serving the airport, and the ammo that would give NIMBYs.

Bill Randell said...


Very very good points. I see Worcester as perfect airport for airlines like Allegiant, working a code sharing a with JetBlue/CapeAir and charters.

We will never be like any of the other airports, but we can fill a role.



Anonymous said...

Fleet-wise, Cape Air might be a good fit for ORH, but two things that seem to be in their business plan are in the way. First, I believe their recent expansion into regional routes in Indiana and from Rutland, Vt., to BOS are both federally subsidized. Second, their fleet of Cessna 402s is stretched pretty thin with all their ops. It used to be easier to transition between New England on one end and Florida and the Caribbean at the other with the change in seasons. As they've grown, it's been trickier. Cessna doesn't build the 402 anymore, so they've been buying up used ones wherever they can.

They do fly ATR-42s in Micronesia, but those flights are contracted through Continental Mike. (There might be some subsidy money there, too.) And they need all three out there -- they haven't brought them to New England despite summer demand and the problems posed by high frequency out of Logan. (Filling one 50-seater would make more sense than filling three or four 402s in a short timeframe.)

For ORH, I'd like to see a startup that'll make it a focus city, instead of an outstation. (Cape Air really does take an interest in all of their destinations, so they'd be good in this regard. But unless Uncle Sam is helping foot the bill, I don't see them coming to town.)

What kind of passenger base would be best for ORH? Allegiant covers the vacation market, but doesn't seem to do much to draw business travelers. Using their model (entirely point-to-point with no connections), you'd need to have a lot of people interested in going to Orlando-Sanford to fill flights regularly. It's a big draw, but still ... wouldn't you want to have an airline to draw from the biz community as well?

Well, Merry Christmas. Let's see what the new year brings.

Bill Randell said...


Again great points. I checked it out and you are right about Cape Air expansion into Burlington. There are Federal subsidies, I did not realize that.. THANKS!

I just do not see anyone coming here making us a focus city for the business traveler. We need to show that we can support a couple (two or three) round trip flights to leisure locations from ORH.

Once we can prove that then we can get shuttle service to hub. Once we can support that then who knows. Look no further then Rockford and that is exactly what they have done.