Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

Walking into the main terminal of Tri-Cities Airport (TRI) on a crisp April morning feels as though you are entering the reflection of the beautiful mountains that surround TRI. The ceiling soars above the modern space with large windows framing views out to the green hills of Tennessee, just coming alive with the rosy glow of a new day. A sleek jet glides into place outside the window as a group of teenagers and adults scurry to their gate. They share a sense of nervous excitement as they check cellphones and adjust backpacks. Are they headed to Europe for the first time? To a sports tournament? On a class trip? It’s fun to imagine what lies ahead for them in the next few hours.

Next to a gate announcing an out-going flight to Orlando, two little girls prance back and forth, their noses pressed to the glass. In any other setting, you might wonder at their choice of outfits: pajama pants stick out underneath cotton-candy colored princess dresses. It is clear they are ready for a big adventure in the Magic Kingdom. Across from them a quiet group of four men and women dressed in office attire sip coffee while scanning laptops. For them, it’s business as usual, just another modern-day commuter trip.

There is something magical about an airport terminal. It is a place of new beginnings and possibilities that exists between the real world and what might be. This sense of magic is not lost on the staff of TRI. Kristi Haulsee, director of marketing and air service development says, “TRI serves as the bookends to vacations for local families and meetings for business travelers. We are one of the first and last experiences they have as a part of their trip. We watch families excited about their vacation fly out and a week later we see them happy to be home. It’s a pleasure to talk with them about where they’ve been and what they’ve experienced.”

For nearly 80 years the airport has served as a vital gateway connecting the Tri-Cities, Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina and Eastern Kentucky with the rest of the world. The airport serves as a regional ambassador, welcoming visitors to the area. With a mission focused on advancing economic growth, the staff at TRI is dedicated to supporting the success of our region and providing superior service to passengers.

TRI is committed to supporting job growth by working closely with regional economic development organizations to recruit world-class companies. Aerospace Park, at Tri-Cities Airport, plays an important role in the future economic development of the region. With 160 acres of developable land and direct runway access, Aerospace Park is a premier site in the southeast for the aerospace industry.

A Vision Of Growth Takes Flight

More than 1,100 people travel through TRI each day, to and from destinations all over the country and around the world. Business travelers account for as much as 60% of scheduled passengers at TRI.

With 6,800 employees in the region, Eastman generates more corporate travel for TRI than any other company in the region. Eastman counts on the airport to connect them to customers and employees around the world, booking the majority of Kingsport-based travel through TRI.

Three airlines currently service TRI with direct flights to Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando/Sanford and St. Pete/Clearwater/Tampa. With one connection, travelers can reach almost anywhere in the U.S. and many destinations abroad. The addition of affordable jet service to Florida destinations has increased the percentage of leisure traffic. Kristi says, “We offer direct flights to St. Pete. In just a couple hours, you can be on a white sandy beach watching the dolphins play instead of spending hours in the car fighting traffic and keeping the kids occupied.”

The best opportunity for growth involves convincing airlines to bring new flights and opportunities to the Tri-Cities, which is no small task. Each year, airport representatives meet with airlines from across the country, working to bring them to TRI. Patrick Wilson, executive director of the Tri-Cities Airport Authority says, “Working to bring new service to the airport is an important task we focus on every day.”

TRI officials say they regularly hear requests for direct flights to locations such as Las Vegas, Washington, D.C. and Denver. While adding flights to popular destinations may seem simple, it’s a complicated and daunting process. The pilot shortage, fluctuating fuel prices, and countless other challenges mean it’s never simple to convince a new airline to add flights, especially given the competition that exists between similarly sized airports across the country.

In the last decade attaining new air service has become especially tricky. Airlines have been reluctant to take chances on new routes in a recovering, but still somewhat shaky, economy.

It’s All About The Numbers

Combatting these issues is a team effort for the leadership at TRI. Patrick explains, “Getting new air service at TRI really comes down to two things. Numbers are always going to be first and foremost for airlines. Passenger numbers, population numbers, the number of businesses and the economy in our region will always play a major role, but it is also important to show an airline what an incredible region we are a part of.”

A stronger economy means more people will choose to fly. This is good news for the Tri-Cities region where the economy is growing. Kristi says, “We can show the airlines many leisure attractions and major companies within easy driving distance of TRI, but most importantly we can show them a population that is invested in its home. That helps us stand out from other airports of our size.”

In just a couple hours, you can be on a white sandy beach watching the dolphins play instead of spending hours in the car fighting traffic and keeping the kids occupied.

Not only does TRI work to prove to airlines the region is a solid investment, they must also show concrete reasons to add specific destinations. Where do most passengers from the Tri-Cities actually travel? How do you prove that a flight would be a successful destination for your service area if you have never had that route before? One important piece of data TRI tracks is the number of TRI passengers connecting to major destination cities. By flying out of TRI, passengers themselves help make the case for adding new destinations or more flights.

TRI also tracks the number of area passengers bypassing TRI to fly out of nearby airports such as Knoxville or Charlotte. To grow, TRI officials say it’s important that locals choose to fly TRI. Patrick explains, “The best thing our passengers can do if they want to see more flights come to TRI is fly with us, and encourage their friends and family to do the same. If we can show airlines that we are growing, they become a lot more interested in a new route or expanding existing service at TRI.”

Patrick, Kristi and everyone at TRI is invested in the continued success of the Tri-Cities area. The more industry grows and the more passengers who pass through the airport’s doors, the more likely it is that TRI will add new flights to destinations in major U. S. cities. With hard work, and a little luck, travelers in the Tri-Cities might see new flights as the airport works to show airlines what residents of the area already know, that TRI is a great place to fly.


• CHOOSE TO FLY TRI. Fly TRI instead of booking a flight from another airport. Over time, those trips will help make the case for more flights from TRI.

• KEEP IN MIND THE TOTAL COST OF YOUR TRIP. While an airfare originating out of a larger city may seem lower, be sure to add in the cost of gas, vehicle wear and tear, meals eaten away from home, hotel stays and your time.

• SAVE TIME. By catching your flight at Tri-Cities Airport you avoid spending hours on the road traveling to an airport in a larger city.

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