Name game at Piedmont Triad International Airport

 In March 2018

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Here in the Triad, we have a long history of believing that marketing solves all problems. In Charlotte, the stock in trade is finance and logistics, moving money and freight. Down in the Triangle, it’s all about scientists and bureaucrats. But in my neck of the woods, we make and sell things, and we understand that names and brands matter. Would smokers have walked a mile for a Dromedary? I don’t think so.

So, it’s a little disconcerting that the leaders of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority cooked up a plan to rename its airport as Central North Carolina International Airport. The idea was that the existing name, Piedmont Triad International Airport, lovingly known as PTI, was too vague. Allegedly, nobody knew where the Piedmont Triad was.

“Changing the name of the airport is a big step. We do not take that lightly,” Airport Authority Chairman Steve Showfety says. “But it is an important step. We need a brand that is recognized around the world, because we are competing around the world.”

PTI isn’t a hub. It has decent service to New York and Washington. Most other places, you have to transfer, often through Charlotte or Atlanta. That’s the fate of airports in smaller metro areas that are too close to hubs. It’s not a bad tradeoff for cheap parking and a TSA line that’s rarely burdensome.

One reason for the mellow vibe is a lack of passengers. The recession of 2007-09 hit the airport hard. Annual boardings dropped from 1.1 million to 864,000, and they haven’t topped 900,000 since.

The name change was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the plan’s on hold. When they announced the switcheroo, airport leaders said the public was on board. Instead, what has come through loud and clear from the public, which wasn’t consulted beforehand, is that PTI may not be poetry, but CNCIA — or perhaps simply CIA — is worse. It brings neither clarity nor grace to the confusion that airport officials said they were trying to address. The reason is that Central North Carolina is a big place. If you look on a map, it probably stretches from Interstate 95 to I-77. So, for people from out of state, saying an airport is in “Central North Carolina” still requires a second question: Where is that, exactly?

Regional names tend to be bland, particularly if their parts are fairly equal in size. It’s not just the Triad. Think of the Tri-Cities in Tennessee and Virginia. It seems to me that the name isn’t the issue. It’s really about regional cooperation and the parts pulling together for the sake of the whole. That was seen in our recent effort to land a Toyota-Mazda auto plant in Randolph County. It didn’t work out as hoped, but it’s hard to believe that the name of the airport or confusion about the Triad was a factor.

Technology has made geography less important, physically and virtually. We search for destinations, which are specific, rather than regions, which are general. Analytics and algorithms do the rest. The names of the airports really don’t matter. Me, I often call PTI by its airport nomenclature, which is GSO. So be it.

Now, anybody can pick apart someone else’s idea. That’s not constructive. So in the spirit of goodwill, here are three suggestions for name changes to PTI:

  • Triad International Airport. Short and sweet. Except for our elected officials and economic-development types, nobody ever calls this area the Piedmont Triad.
  • Heart of Carolina International Airport. Corny, but it’s what we’re trying to say.
  • Greensboro-Winston International Airport. Just rip the Band-Aid off and be done with it. High Point will get over the snub. If the furniture market has proven anything, it’s that a good product — the proverbial better mousetrap — always wins, and a good name can’t save a bad mousetrap.
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