Direct flights from Indy would boost economy, business leaders say

INDIANAPOLIS (Statehouse File) – Business leaders across the state are urging lawmakers to approve incentives for more direct international flights to Indianapolis, saying these flights will boost the region’s economy.

In a letter to State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, Hillenbrand, Eli Lilly, Cummins Inc. and 25 other Indiana businesses asked him as the Senate’s budget leader to consider adding money to Indiana’s two-year budget for nonstop air connections.

“As you know, we conduct business in an increasingly digital and global economy, yet physical connectivity remains a vital element of operations,” the letter read. “If the opportunity for direct service became a reality, it would significantly enhance our state’s competitive advantage for business and economic growth.”

For Hillenbrand, an international trade company headquartered in Batesville, direct flights are crucial, according to Hillenbrand President and CEO Joe Raver.

Hillenbrand serves 40 countries around the world in four markets: plastics, chemical, food and death care. But Raver, along with the other Indiana business leaders, worries his company won’t be able to be a globally diversified industrial company without additional funding for international and domestic direct flights from Indiana.

The Indianapolis International Airport currently offers 46 direct flights to domestic and international locations – the second lowest number of direct flights among nearby international airports. ( Graphic/Shelby Mullis)

Eric Shields, vice president of policy and strategic initiatives for the Indiana Economic Development Commission, said Hillenbrand is one of several businesses in Indiana with a global footprint that could benefit from additional direct flights into and out of Indianapolis. The company’s Batesville headquarters is about halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

“For them, in the conversations we’ve had, it’d be really appealing for them to be able to drive the 45 minutes to Indianapolis and fly direct to London or somewhere else in Europe to get to their locations as opposed to driving to Cincinnati or connecting somewhere else,” Shields explained.

Indianapolis Airport Authority Executive Director Mario Rodriquez agreed.

“Nonstop connectivity is a critical variable for companies considering where to locate their headquarters and invest in growth,” Rodriquez said. “In addition, nonstop connectivity also helps with talent retention and allows Indiana businesses to continue to compete for the world’s best workforce.”

In an open letter to the General Assembly, Rodriquez partnered with three airport executives from across the state to join in the campaign for adding more direct flights.

The Indianapolis International Airport currently offers nonstop service to 46 destinations, both domestic and international. Most recently, the Indiana Economic Development Commission partnered with United Airlines in 2014 to establish a direct flight from Indianapolis to San Francisco. The commission provided a $1.5 million “safety net” to the airline in a two-year contract to help kick start the effort in case it didn’t meet its minimum revenue goals.

Rodriquez said by the end of the first year, the route was “self-sustaining” and no longer needed that safety net.

After seeing the success of United’s nonstop flight, Alaska Airlines decided to hop on board. The company will launch its first direct flight out of Indianapolis to Seattle next month. It will also add nonstop connections from Indianapolis to San Francisco in September.

In January, Southwest Airlines announced non-stop seasonal service from Indianapolis to San Diego.

Currently, the Indianapolis airport only offers direct international flights to Toronto, Cancun and Punta Cana.

“The Indiana global business community needs and expects national and international direct flights to retain and attract businesses in the region,” Rodriquez said.

Since the beginning of the year, Gov. Eric Holcomb has pushed for funding to improve the state’s connectivity with the world. That is why he allocated $5 million a year in his budget proposal for additional nonstop flights to and from Indianapolis International Airport.

“Investing in infrastructure means more than maintaining the roads and bridges we already have;” Holcomb said in an opinion-editorial last month, “it means securing more direct flights to national and international locations, something the global business community needs and expects.”

Shields said it’s all about attracting investment to Indiana, and direct flights is just one way of doing that.

“We’re investing a lot in roads and bridges in Indiana, and that’s physical infrastructure, and direct flights is sort of another part of the transportation equation,” Shields said. “People need to be able to move around the country.”

But with a $1.2 billion road funding plan, House Republicans did not allocate any funds for direct flights.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, did include $2 million annually for direct flights in the Senate’s budget plan — $3 million less each year than Holcomb requested.

“The reality is that the businesses of America operate at high speed, and they want to have easy connections and they’ve already shown some successes with an investment in that approach,” Kenley said.

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