Six Added ExpressJet Flights Cut N.O. Airport Service Gap

Optimism is flying high at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where momentum is soaring and the gap is narrowing between the number of airline services available before and after Hurricane Katrina, airport officials say.

The most recent boost for the airport came when Houston-based ExpressJet Airlines added 10 daily, nonstop flights to new and pre-Katrina destinations. This addition is one more piece of the recovery puzzle, said Aviation Director Sean Hunter.

ExpressJet President and CEO Jim Ream said airline officials recognized New Orleans is in a "rebound mode" rather than a recovery mode.

"New Orleans is a great destination city," Ream said. "We always had a sense we wanted to come to a city this size (and) New Orleans is the cornerstone of that effort. "

ExpressJet is building to a total of 12 daily, nonstop 50-seat flights to six destinations by June: San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Birmingham, Ala.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; ExpressJet also offers one, single-stop flight to Tucson, Ariz.

The airport has 118 daily flights, or 75 percent of pre-Katrina options, and 38 destinations, or 88 percent of pre-Katrina stops.

In June, three more carriers - Southwest Airlines, US Airways and United Airlines - will add five more flights, although Northwest Airlines will repeal one nonstop flight to Detroit, for a total of 122 flights.

ExpressJet flies to large hubs such as the Houston Airport System as well as smaller communities, Ream said. The company's new business model targets cities with about 500,000 people for direct service to other similarly sized communities.

Hunter and Maggie Woodruff, airport deputy director of community and governmental affairs, said Southwest may add new nonstop service in the fall. A Southwest team visited New Orleans in April to gauge demand. Southwest now offers 26 flights to nine destinations from New Orleans and will add an additional Dallas flight in June.

"In conversations with them we got into specific routes, new destinations and targeting pre-Katrina destinations like the West Coast," Hunter said. "We also talked about what our incentives are and the city and its recovery efforts. "

Stuart Thomas, a Southwest schedule planner, said he was encouraged by what he saw on the visit. He said it was clear the city is rebuilding, which leads to increased confidence about adding service.

"In terms of upcoming service the fall is a good opportunity to rewrite the schedule from scratch," Thomas said. "We've got new aircraft coming in and we can look at redeploying aircraft from other locations. "

Southwest is likely to add shorter routes, such as Houston, in the summer, he said.

"Once we get them to Houston, we can get them to key connecting points like L.A., Denver, etc.," Thomas said. "A Houston point teaches us. We're still learning how the travel dynamics have shifted. "

Ream said he will monitor ExpressJet's 12 flights for at least a year before considering adding more service.

"This is a tough industry," Ream said. "You have to be mindful of the balance sheet, your debt-to-income ratio. I'll know when it looks good. If we made money and didn't lose money or gain any debt and we saw a pattern to grow, it could make sense. "

Ream said the diminished population doesn't worry him with New Orleans down to 255,000 people from 460,000 pre-Katrina.

"We fly to 150 communities in North America and it's not a concern," Ream said. "New Orleans doesn't rise to the level of sleeplessness (of some other communities). We have the perfect-sized airplanes to meet the market. "

The new service resulted from airport staff and state and local tourism officials efforts to promote city recovery, said Hunter, adding that the public relations push will continue to be a top priority in his new position as permanent aviation director.

Dated flight data is one issue plaguing Armstrong. The industry uses six-month-old data to assess airport service needs, Woodruff said, making it hard for officials to determine how many new flights and seats are needed. The airport can account for convention traffic but business traffic is harder to quantify because it's generally not planned far in advance, she said.

"We hear about people not making a meeting because there's not a flight, so we know there's money being left on the table. How much, we don't know," Woodruff said. "We want what is reasonable business-wise (for the airlines) but we know we don't have enough flights. We want as many flights as the market demands. "

Southwest officials say the airline is making money in New Orleans, Woodruff said. The good news, she said, is that nearly two years since the hurricane, it's becoming easier to prove demand for more flights and services to the airlines.

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