WORCESTER — Nearly a year after announcing plans to start service at Worcester Regional Airport, Delta Air Lines Inc. will begin flights between Worcester and Detroit on Aug. 2.
Delta, the nation’s second largest carrier by number of passengers, is due to make its inaugural flight from Worcester at 6 a.m. and arrive just under two hours later at Detroit Metro Airport.
The flight on a commuter jet will mark the third commercial carrier to launch daily service at the Worcester airport since 2013, joining JetBlueAirways Corp. and American Airlines Inc.
An executive with the Massachusetts Port Authority, which owns and operates the airport, said advance bookings for Delta look successful so far.
“We’ve seen about 60 percent load factors,” said Massport Director of Aviation Edward C. Freni, referring to a calculation airlines use to determine how much of their service is being utilized by passengers. “I know it’s only a 50-seat airplane, but that’s not too bad before we even start the service.”
New launches at Worcester airport are always closely watched because the hilltop facility on the Leicester line, known in airport abbreviation as ORH, has long struggled to attract commercial carriers and passengers. Surrounded by larger, busier airports in or near Hartford, Providence, Boston and Manchester, Central Massachusetts travelers have often opted for the choice and competitive fares outside Worcester.
The airport’s passenger traffic peaked at 324,777 in 1988. By 2006, it had no regularly scheduled commercial flights, even though private and charter flights continued to use the airport.
Massport acquired the airport from the city of Worcester in 2010 and has tried to attract carriers, using its leverage as the owner and operator of Logan International Airport in Boston. JetBlue, based in New York City, now flies daily between Worcester and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in Florida, and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
American Airlines also launched service in Worcester in 2018 through Piedmont Airlines Inc., starting with two flights daily between Worcester and Philadelphia. American and Piedmont then dropped down to one flight daily and then one flight four days a week. More recently, the Fort Worth, Texas-based operator has returned to daily flights between Worcester and Philadelphia.
As of the 12 months ended April 30, 2019, Worcester airport had handled 165,000 passengers, up about 16% over the previous 12 months, according to federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.
Delta is poised to add to that. The Atlanta-based carrier is growing in the Northeast, saying it plans to make more than 175 daily departures from Boston this year.
SkyWest Airlines, a regional airline for Delta, is scheduled to handle the route, flying 50-seat CRJ 200 jets.
Airport backers are pitching the new Delta service — like the American service — as an opportunity for travelers to connect to U.S. and international destinations. Detroit is a Delta hub offering flights to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis and a number of smaller markets. International destinations include Japan, Korea, China, Mexico, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean.
“I flew out of ORH to JFK to China last October, and I think Massport and the airlines need to emphasize that these places are destinations in and of themselves, and just as important, they are connections to America and anywhere you want to go in the world,” said Timothy P. Murray, president and chief executive of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
But making a new route a success requires a complex mix of travelers, fares, marketing and good connections.
Mr. Freni of Massport said the agency has commissioned billboard advertisements in Central Massachusetts, placed radio ads and plans to run print ads to boost the message about Worcester flights.
All parties — Massport, airlines, business and political leaders — need to do a better job at getting that message out, said Mr. Murrray. People who use the airport find it convenient and easy to use, according to Mr. Murray, but more travelers need to know about it.
“If we can connect that next dot, that you can have that convenience and user-friendly benefits, then ridership will build,” he said.
Delta service is also poised to change soon after it starts. Beginning Sept. 2, daily flights will leave Detroit at 1:45 p.m., then turn around and depart Worcester at 4:15 p.m. That puts Worcester travelers into Detroit in the evening for connections.
“I think it does narrow down the connecting possibilities, but they’re still there,” Mr. Freni said. American changed its schedule in Worcester, and once Delta figures out what works best, he said, “I think Delta will adjust, as well.”
Using Delta’s online reservations portal last week, Worcester travelers would have been able to connect in mid-September to a number of destinations. Round-trip tickets were available to San Francisco for $338, to Chicago for $251, to Seattle for $538, to Minneapolis for about $307, and to Dallas-Fort Worth for about $260. All flights were “basic,” Delta’s cheapest fare.
Delta did not respond to specific questions about its Worcester load factors, ticket sales, the number of connections travelers will be able to make in Detroit and marketing plans. The airline emailed a reply saying that, “the new service will allow customers in the region to access Delta’s global network via our Detroit hub. Come September, the flight schedule will allow ORH customers to enjoy especially timely connections with many top-demand westbound departures (to Las Vegas, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, to name a few).”
Mr. Freni of Massport said the agency is continuing to seek airlines for Worcester’s airport, including visiting a startup airline he declined to name. Two high-profile startups are XTRA Airways, an air charter service that is raising money for commercial operations, and an airline code named Moxy that is led by JetBlue founder David Neeleman.
Massport is telling airlines that Logan airport ultimately may be limited in how much it can grow. The 1,500-acre facility is crammed onto a spit of land that juts into the ocean.
Lewis G. Evangelidis, Massport chairman and Worcester County sheriff, said the agency has long-term expectations for Worcester airport, and new Massport Chief Executive Lisa G. Wieland also wants to get to know it.
“The need for a second strong airport is very real, and I feel Worcester is positioning itself to become that airport,” Mr. Evangelidis said.