More airline seats, more passengers projected for Yeager

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Apr. 29--CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The number of seats available to passengers at Charleston's Yeager Airport dropped by nearly 25 percent between 2006 and 2009, as airlines tightened belts and parked aircraft in response to a sluggish economy and high fuel costs.

But passenger boardings slipped only about 16 percent during the same period, and are now trending upward, following last year's addition of nonstop service to New York City and Orlando, Fla.

The percentage of occupied seats, known as the "load factor" in airline parlance, has risen from 53 percent in 2006 to 60 percent in 2009, and is on track to reach 62 percent by the end of this year.

"That's a good load factor for our market," Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson told members of the Charleston airport's governing board on Wednesday.

Thanks in part to Yeager's relatively high load factor and a recovering economy, airlines are projected to make an additional 10,000 seats available to passengers at the Charleston airport by the end of this year.

Yeager's load factor rates and passenger numbers were among items contained in an airline trend analysis for the Charleston airport discussed during Wednesday's board meeting.

The analysis, which focused mainly on trends that occurred between the third quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of last year, showed that Yeager is on track to board 252,000 passengers by the end of this year, up from 237,406 last year but still down considerably from 283,593 boarded in 2006.

According to the analysis, passenger fares at Yeager dropped, on average, nearly 21 percent between the third quarter of 2008 and the same period last year. Atkinson attributed the drop to arrival of the low-cost carrier AirTran in the Charleston market last June, and increased competition from the addition of American Airlines to Yeager's lineup of commercial carriers last April.

The entrance of the two new competitors in the Charleston market saved passengers $8.4 million in fares during the third quarter of last year alone, according to the analysis. Projected over a year, that amounts to a savings of $33.5 million.

Orlando, now reached nonstop via AirTran, has become Charleston's most popular destination, followed by New York's LaGuardia International, served nonstop by American.

In other airport business, Atkinson told board members that work on Yeager's passenger terminal canopy, which will cover the sidewalk and part of the access road just outside the building, is underway and should be complete by the end of June.

American Airlines' new nonstop Chicago service seems to be doing well, and so far has not affected the number of passengers carried by United, which also provides Charleston-Chicago service.

Charleston will be featured in the September issue of AirTran's in-flight magazine.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

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