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Deep Decline in Air Traffic Still Being Felt

Dramatic decreases in domestic flights persist at many airports more than a year after Sept. 11, report shows.

December 19, 2002|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Many U.S. airports that saw drastic cutbacks in domestic passenger service after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have not recovered, with some still showing double-digit declines, according to a national report released Wednesday.

Among major airports facing the sharpest drop-off in scheduled flights is Los Angeles International Airport, which now has 20% fewer flights compared with last fall, the study said. Only Boston's Logan International Airport experienced a steeper decline -- 23% -- in domestic commercial service.

As a group, large airports have lost 10.3% of their scheduled domestic flights, according to the report. San Francisco International Airport suffered an 18% drop.

Medium and small hub airports on average experienced a 6.6% decline, the study said. Palm Springs International Airport, which saw a quarter of its scheduled flights disappear in a year's time, ranked eighth on the list of smaller airports with the biggest service cuts.

The analysis compared domestic schedules at more than 500 commercial airports for the week starting Oct. 1, 2001, to schedules for the week of Sept. 30, 2002. Those weeks were chosen to avoid holidays and other irregular travel periods that can cause schedule fluctuations, according to the study.

Although Burbank Airport had a 3.13% drop in scheduled service, according to the study's interactive Web site, airport officials say the number of flights has now almost returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

The largest carrier at Burbank is Southwest Airlines, which has remained financially healthy while other large airlines have suffered.

Other Southland airports reflect the trends indicated by the report. For the first 10 months of this year, traffic fell by 4% at Ontario International Airport and by 2.7% at Santa Ana's John Wayne Airport compared to 2001, according to airport officials.

Elsewhere across the country, the study found many small and regional airports were hit especially hard, losing a high percentage of flights for trips under 500 miles.

And at 21 small airports -- including Sonoma County in California -- commercial airline service ceased altogether.

"Consumers are confronting fewer choices, more crowded aircraft and an overall reduction in accessibility," said Hank Dittmar, co-director of the study by Reconnecting America, a project seeking to change U.S. transportation policy and boost the use of rail.

Dittmar is a former director of Santa Monica Airport and a former executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

The study, which was funded by the Great American Station, MacArthur, Packard, Surdna and Turner foundations, calls for changes in government policy to "shore up our crumbling intercity travel network" and improve access for medium-sized and smaller cities because airports play such an important role in local economies.

It also proposes making airport terminals into "travelports" with better connections to regional train and bus systems to boost long-distance air travel as well as such transit options as high-speed rail for shorter trips.

Airline experts expressed skepticism at the feasibility of the travelport idea, but acknowledged that the industry is facing its toughest time in history.

Already troubled before Sept. 11, the commercial air industry has since gone into a virtual nosedive, evidenced by the recent bankruptcy protection filings of US Airways and United Airlines. Despite $5 billion in federal aid, the industry lost $7.7 billion last year and will likely lose an additional $9 billion this year, said David Swierenga, chief economist for the Air Transport Assn.

While low-fare carriers such as Southwest have found success in the regional market, other airlines have slashed short-haul flights because they are costly to operate.

The study notes that federal fees and taxes, higher now because of increased security, can account for 19% of a $300 ticket but take a 44% bite out of a $100 ticket.

Feeling the most squeezed, according to the report, are some of the nation's smallest airports.

Sonoma County Airport, which served 24,000 departing passengers last year with four daily flights to Los Angeles and two to San Francisco, has not had any commercial service since United Express left the market in October 2001. The airport, which has an operating budget of $1.8 million, saw its revenues plunge by $400,000.

"It's been hard on the airport," said airport manager Jon Stout.

Meanwhile, he added, for residents who want to catch a flight, the nearest airports are in San Francisco and Oakland, at least two hours away by car.

For Sonoma residents, "there's no convenient way to get to Southern California right now," Stout said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fewer flights

Large U.S. airports have seen a reduction in weekly domestic departures following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Weekly flights lost (percentage change)

Boston Logan International Airport: -943 (-23%)

Los Angeles International Airport: -1,239 (-20%)

Newark International Airport: -740 (-20%)

Washington Dulles International Airport: -606 (-20%)

Miami International Airport: -322 (-19%)

San Francisco International Airport: -592 (-18%)

Orlando International Airport: -424 (-16%)

St. Louis Lambert International Airport: -635 (-14%)

Pittsburgh International Airport: -573 (-14%)

Seattle/Tacoma International Airport: -450 (-13%)

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Source: Reconnecting America

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