New Orleans air service still lagging

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, air service to the battered city of New Orleans continues to badly lag behind its pre-storm level.

A USA TODAY analysis of schedule data from Back Aviation Solutions shows that the 3,703 departures scheduled from the city's Louis Armstrong International Airport last month were a 24% drop from July 2005, the last full month before the Aug. 29, 2005, storm temporarily snuffed out commercial service.

Maggie Woodruff, the airport's deputy director, says the airport is projecting that service will be back to about 90% of pre-Katrina levels by the end of next year.

According to the city's Convention & Visitors Bureau, the number of leisure travelers visiting New Orleans is about 60% of pre-storm levels. Estimates of population loss vary, but it's thought now to have only about two-thirds the number of its pre-storm residents.

But Woodruff says business travelers, contractors, insurance adjusters and volunteers have created strong demand for New Orleans air service. "Our biggest problem has been supply (of air service), because airlines have been cautious."

Some of the changes in service:

*Fewer seats. When measured in airline seats rather than flights, the service reduction is deeper. Over the two-year period, New Orleans saw a drop of 32% in departing seats.

*Fewer destinations. Armstrong now has 37 non-stop destinations, vs. 43 in July 2005. Among the destinations lost: Indianapolis, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco and Toronto. New Orleans has gained non-stop service to Austin and San Antonio.

*Slow return. Of the nine carriers that have operated at Armstrong before and after the storm, only AirTran, American and Continental have rebuilt their service back to -- or close to -- pre-Katrina levels. Houston-based ExpressJet has started new service.

Southwest Airlines remains the city's biggest carrier, but its 825 departures last month represented a 50% drop from July 2005. Its market share dropped to 22% last month from 34% in July 2005. Southwest has identified New Orleans as a market for growth, and Woodruff says the carrier plans to add eight more daily flights in November.

The airport has been running an incentive program for airlines. It's waiving landing fees up to 12 months for flights to any new cities. It's also cutting its per-passenger charge for airlines meeting growth benchmarks.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who's working with the airport, says it's "doing everything it can" to re-establish air service.

"When the city shut down, the airlines had to reallocate (their planes), and they can't just put them back in. It's happening now, but just not happening as fast as it can."