Discount airline USA 3000 will cease flying to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in August as part of a wider retreat in Florida.
USA 3000, owned by the parent of Philadelphia-based Apple Vacations, ranks as the small airport's second-largest airline, carrying 30 percent of passengers. "It's a large loss," said Noah Lagos, the airport's executive director. "They flew 300,000 people last year. We were very surprised."
The airline, which makes 21 weekly flights at the airport, will stop service on Aug. 19. It also will cease operations in Melbourne (Aug. 1) and Fort Lauderdale (Aug. 19) and won't resume seasonal service in Sarasota in October, said Angus Kinnear, chief operating officer for USA 3000. The airline will continue flying to Fort Myers, he said.
Like other carriers, USA 3000 is struggling with record fuel prices. After summer vacation season, traffic drops off and fares go down in Florida, he said. "In September and October, we were looking at a big, black hole," Kinnear said.
Launched in 2000, the airline carries Apple tour customers early in the day, then switches to scheduled public flights. USA 3000 flies from the local airport to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
The airline will keep making scheduled flights between those cities — plus Cincinnati, Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio — to destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, Kinnear said.
Florida has some of the lowest domestic air fares in the country and only Fort Myers fetches ticket prices high enough to make money with oil at $125 a barrel, he said. Customers booked on discontinued flights will be contacted and receive refunds on their credit cards.
With USA 3000 and Allegiant Air flying a combined 80 percent of passengers, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International was poised for its best year since 2004.
Recruiting another big carrier will be a tall order. Only two airlines, Allegiant and Southwest, made money in the first quarter of 2008. Several smaller ones — ATA, Skybus and Aloha among them — went out of business in recent months.
"The tone of the industry is to hunker down and try to keep what you've got," Lagos said. "There's not a ready replacement for USA 3000."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.