Florida travelers have a choice of airlines to the state capital, thanks to an assist from taxpayers.
Delta Air Lines will resume nonstop flights April 1 between Tallahassee and three Sunshine State cities, including Tampa. The airline could receive as much as $1.5 million in state and local funding if the flights lose money over the first year.
The state committed to put up $750,000, with Tallahassee and Leon County splitting the rest, said Carrie Blanchard, senior aide to Tallahassee Mayor John Marks. "It's a low-risk way to create local economic stimulation" and bring down fares through competition, she said.
Delta stopped flying between Tallahassee and Florida cities in October as part of a strategy of feeding passengers though hub airports like Atlanta. The airline also couldn't make money flying the routes with gas-guzzling 50-seat jets.
That left travelers in the Tampa Bay area and South Florida — mostly state employees, lobbyists, legislators and college students — with few options. They could take a 19-seat Continental Connection turboprop, an expensive connecting flight on Delta through Atlanta or an hourslong drive.
This time, Delta will fly a more economical 34-seat turboprop. The planes, operated by Mesaba Airlines under the Delta Connection brand, became available with the recent merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines.
The government incentive has Gulfstream International Airlines of Fort Lauderdale, which flies as the Continental Connection, seeing red.
"We don't mind even competition, but we have a huge problem (with the state) using tax dollars to make the competitive landscape uneven," Gulfstream president David Hackett told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Competition may already be driving down fares.
A round-trip ticket between Tampa and Tallahassee on Continental Express in mid March cost $345 on Monday, identical to Delta's first April flights. The same ticket cost about $500 in the fall and $400 as recently as last month.
"Competition is always a good thing," said Louis Miller, executive director at Tampa International Airport.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.