Rising fuel prices could curb AirTran's expansion at BWI

Less than a week before one of the busiest travel days of the year, when some 490,000 traveles are expected to use BWI Airport, the head of AirTran Airways had fuel on his mind. The price of oil, $90 to $100 per barrel, is having a big impact right now on the Orlando-based airline, AirTran CEO Bob Fornaro told members of the BWI Business Partnership on Thursday during its monthly meeting.

"The biggest impact will be next year when there are fewer fuel hedges," he said.

The rising fuel prices might mean AirTran has to change its plans to add flights at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and other markets around the nation, he said.

"Right now the game plan is to add more flights," said Mr. Fornaro, who has worked for the airline since 1999 and became its chief executive officer Nov. 1.

He gave no details of how many flights the airline would like to add out of BWI or other airports.

"However, if we see a fuel spike, we may see a restructure," Mr. Fornaro said.

That would include an increase in ticket prices, re-evaluation of AirTran's current destinations and decrease in flights - all of which are opposite of the current plans the company has, he said.

The airline, which began its BWI service in December 2001 with routes to Boston and Atlanta and currently operates 16 routes from the airport, wants to start flights internationally to destinations in Canada and the Caribbean. These locations are speculative now. The company may not discuss an official plan of implementation until 2009, he said.

"It is just a matter of time until (AirTran has) a diversified domestic and international portfolio," he said.

AirTran currently has 12 percent of BWI's market share, a distant second to Southwest Airlines, which has slightly more than half the airport's market.

As an airline's progress is hindered by rising fuel costs, the air traveler's wallet feels the pinch - that is, if there is even a seat left on their desired flight.

"Fares will go up; capacity will go down," Mr. Fornaro explained.

Fuel prices will determine the number of flights the airline has to offer the passenger.

"We have to be practical," he said.

AirTran has the youngest all-Boeing fleet in America, he said. The company has 137 airplanes, 145 routes and serves 55 cities.