Disrespected Trenton Airport Takes On Philadelphia, US Airways

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TRENTON ( TheStreet) -- Once again, an airline is looking to grow at Trenton-Mercer Regional Airport, which for years has been an airport with a bright future, never realized.

Although Trenton-Mercer is in the middle of a vast population center, the airport's growth has been stymied by proximity to Philadelphia International Airport, which is 50 miles away, along with noise concerns and inadequate infrastructure. At one time, Southwest was thought to be considering service to Trenton, but that dream never materialized.

In the big picture of commercial aviation, as major carriers tighten their strangleholds on the nation's principal airports, outliers like Trenton-Mercer present one of the few options for growth by smaller airlines seeking to compete on the basis of low fares.

Frontier Airlines, a subsidiary of Republic building service at Trenton, said last week it will begin flying from Trenton to Cincinnati and Charlotte on Feb. 12, 2014. Frontier calls Trenton "the gateway to New Jersey's state capital, all of central New Jersey and Southeast Pennsylvania, including metro Philadelphia."

US Airways operates its second largest hub at Philadelphia.

Central New Jersey residents also use Newark Liberty International Airport, a hub for United .

Once Charlotte and Cincinnati are added, Frontier will fly from Trenton to 11 destinations, including Atlanta, Chicago Midway, Columbus, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham and Tampa.

All of the service is temporarily suspended because Trenton Airport shut down Sept. 9 for construction projects involving the runway, terminal and parking lots. The main runway, which at 6,006 feet long is short, requires an Engineered Material Arresting System, or EMAS, crushable concrete blocks that could stop runaway aircraft. The airport will reopen Nov. 8.

Over the years, Trenton has been served by about a half dozen airlines, some barely known and, except for Frontier, all gone. Among them was US Airways, which flew to Pittsburgh; United, which flew to Chicago; and Delta regional partners which flew to Atlanta and Boston. Officials of Mercer County, which operates the airport, courted Southwest in the 1990s, but the carrier "never set up shop," said county spokeswoman Julie Willmot.

Perhaps the most notable effort to use Trenton was by Eastwind Airlines which established a small hub in the mid 1990s, serving Atlanta, Boston, Greensboro, N.C., Providence, R.I., Richmond and a handful of Florida markets. "Folks here are starved for a home-based airline that's convenient and cheap to use," onetime Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tom Belden wrote in August 1995, as the service was launched. N.J. Governor Christie Todd Whitman showed up for the event.

Belden wrote that Trenton Airport was renamed Trenton-Mercer at Eastwind's request, in order to enhance marketing efforts. (Today Frontier markets the airport as Trenton/Princeton.) In a subsequent story, Belden described the "boxy little terminal." Eastwind, setting the stage for Frontier, relied on low fares to attract passengers. In 1998, it sought to expand into Philadelphia, from which it served three routes. In 1999, it shut down due to financial problems.