Incoming: Jackson airport to land a share of increased casino traffic
The advent of live dealers and table games at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is widely predicted to bring sweeping economic benefits to the region — benefits that are so far-reaching even the tiny landing strip known as the Jackson County Airport could land a piece of the action.
In the countdown to table games going live at the casino later this month, the Jackson County Airport has seen an increase in inquiries from air taxi companies. These “planes for hire” have been zeroing in on Jackson as an ideal small planes airport near Cherokee to deposit their casino-bound customers.
Mike Schoonover, manager of the airport, called it a “dramatic” surge.
The airport went from one to two phone calls a month to two or three, sometimes four, a day. The air taxis, which operate similar to car taxis, transport travelers from place to place via small plane without the hassles of flying a commercial airline and far more quickly than driving.
Harrah’s anticipates live table games will bring in a new demographic of player — including high rollers — but with the closest major airport 90 minutes away in Asheville, transporting players to Harrah’s doorstep was a niche waiting to be filled.
“Of course, that presented a business opportunity for them, and they started looking at our airport as a logical place for them to come into,” Schoonover said.
Harrah’s management has spent months upon months thinking about how the addition of table games, such as poker and Blackjack, will affect the region, from an increase in jobs to an uptick in home sales or apartment rentals to added business for local stores. But, more flights coming into Jackson County airport is not something that crossed their mind.
“Throughout this process we have been trying to think ahead … and that isn’t one we thought about,” said James Bradley, a spokesman for Harrah’s casino. Bradley added that it’s a “pleasant surprise.”
People who are willing to pay at least a couple of thousand dollars to charter a private plane are some of the same people who Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino hopes will grace its roulette or blackjack or craps tables when they open later this month.
“It’s going to bring a different class in here,” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band.
Schoonover hopes to work with the tribe and the casino to give customers the whole nine yards. Schoonover plans to talk with Harrah’s management about offering a car service to and from the airport for those who are traveling by plane specifically to visit the casino. The Jackson County airport is only about 30 minutes away from the casino.
“The folks who would likely come in want that door-to-door service,” Schoonover said. “We are looking at streamlining that whole piece.”
The casino management has expressed an interest in working with the Jackson County airport to transport gamblers to and from both locations — a service it already provides to certain VIPs. Vehicles can often be spotted at the airport, waiting to pick up players when they arrive and drive them to the casino, whether chartered privately or sent by the casino itself.
The casino owns a couple of Escalades and employs drivers to cart around performers who are playing concerts in its event center.
Meanwhile, Doug Cody, a Jackson County commissioner, is attempting to contact Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the only rental car company with offices in the county, to discuss setting up an operation at the airport.
“This is something that we really need to do,” said Cody, a member of the airport authority board, a five-member committee that oversees the airport.
As more people fly into the Jackson County airport to spend time at the casino, Schoonover said he hopes it will become Harrah’s go-to airport for all its guests.
“That is the ultimate icing on the cake,” Schoonover said. “It’s just amazing, absolutely amazing.”
The Jackson County Airport is already used by casino patrons — some who fly in on their own private planes and some via air taxi. The airport charges visiting planes $10 a night to park at the airport. But, it doesn’t charge touchdown fees for air taxis — something that is common practice at most airports.
Part of the reason Jackson County’s airport doesn’t charge is because the existing volume is so low — the airport sees only about five to 10 air taxis a month, Schoonover said.
If that changes, the airport could deem it worthwhile to impose an air taxi fee.
The Jackson County airport is a public airport owned by the county and overseen the airport authority board. Most of its traffic comes from recreational pilots, with about 100 to 150 small private planes coming through the airport every month. A handful of those might be business related, such as Peebles Department Store, Schoonover said. State and government agencies account for another 50 to 75 touchdowns a month.
The airport’s only source of income comes from the fuel it sells pilots and fees for visiting planes that park overnight. Local pilots also pay to house their planes there permanently.
“The airport is a little less than a break-even operation,” Schoonover said.
The airports capital budget for the ranges wildly depending on how much state and federal grant funding it receives. Last fiscal year, the airport made $44,129 from fuel sales, space rentals and cell tower hosting. But, it spent $54,777, leaving the airport $10,648 short of covering its operating expenses.
But, with new business from air taxis, the airport could find itself turning a profit, or at least matching their expenses.
Jackson County airport has been on an improvement track for the past few years following several years of neglect. It had minor aggravations like a pest problem, cracked pavement and leaky roofs. But, it also had major deficiencies, like a runway that was too narrow and too short, a lack of modern navigation systems and inadequate runway lighting. The airport has come a long way, Schoonover said.
“We are basically at the point now that everything works,” Schoonover said. “Now we have a product to sell. It allows these folks to fly into Jackson County who might otherwise go into Asheville or Macon.”
County Commissioner Joe Cowan, however, questioned what greater good the airport actually serves if the airport isn’t breaking even — let alone making money.
“Is our official position that we want to generate more air traffic up there at this small landing strip, and if so, what benefit does it have to the people of Jackson County?” Cowan asked.
Cowan in the past has opposed subsidizing the airport with county tax dollars, claiming the average resident doesn’t get any benefits from it. In fact, Cowan said the noise from increased air traffic is actually an irritant to neighbors who live in the area.
Schoonover claims that the economy does get a boost from private plane traffic.
“Activity begets activity,” Schoonover said.
The airport has had a rocky past and marred reputation because of its appearance and problems with landslides. It was essentially built on a leveled-off mountaintop and has dealt with landslides and erosion runoff since it opened in the 1970s.
However, Schoonover assured that the airport is now stable and undergoes land surveys every year to help prevent slides from occurring again.
“First impressions are lasting impressions,” Schoonover said. “We are back on the uptick in terms of our reputation now.”
Commissioner Bill Cody agreed that the new business and changes make the airport a valuable resource.
“It had some issues in the past but can be an asset for our county going forward,” Cody said.
Jackson airport still second fiddle
Although the Macon airport is also nearby, neither Schoonover nor Macon Airport manager Neil Hoppe think that the growth in business for Jackson airport will affect Macon, which can accommodate larger planes, including small jets.
“Rather than taking away (from Macon), for us, it’s more about getting our fair share,” Schoonover said.
The Jackson airport can only accommodate small passenger planes, and up until recently, the airport was not approved for instrument approaches, which limited the types of planes that could use it.
The instrument approach allows pilots to essentially fly into an airport blind. They only use the instruments on the plane’s dashboard to safely navigate their plane onto the runway.
Macon airport’s clients are mostly wealthy homeowners in Cashiers, Highlands and Franklin. Macon rarely has people fly in just to visit Harrah’s casino, Hoppe said.
“In five years, I may have had five flights,” Hoppe said.
There is no competition between the two, he said. Macon offers services that Jackson does not, such as annual inspections, aircraft repair and pilot supplies. It is also staffed.
Hoppe criticized the Jackson airport for having no staff and offering no services beyond fueling and docking.
“Jackson County is virtually unattended,” Hoppe said. “They don’t have any real services to offer to aircraft.”