Travelers Dwindle at Montgomery Regional Airport

After a $36 million renovation, Montgomery Regional Airport will celebrate in November with a grand opening.

Will anyone notice? The number of travelers using the facility has declined over the past three months.

From July to September, the number of passengers each month dropped by 2,722 passengers, or 8.3 percent. Compared with September 2005, 8,302 fewer passengers used the airport last month, a drop of 21.7 percent.

Montgomery is not the only airport serving a dwindling number of passengers. Airports at three of Alabama's other largest cities -- Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile -- are being affected similarly.

Airport officials and aviation experts said the reasons vary but include a softening economy, high fares, fears of terrorism, the end of the vacation season, loss of some flights and the end of the fiscal year, when business travel typically falls.

Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, said there isn't much Montgomery and other regional airports can do to increase traffic "other than to create a business climate so competitive with other cities in the Southeast that the place booms."

"That would increase the demand for air service and might lead to some routes that could support main-line service," he said.

That is what Montgomery Regional Airport officials are hoping will happen once Hyundai and its suppliers settle in.

The construction of a BMW assembly plant in South Carolina in 1992 sparked a revitalization effort at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in Greer, S.C. The airport has seen millions in expansion projects at the main terminal and entrance from Interstate 85 since the carmaker opened there.

"We're probably a year or two off before seeing that (kind of) surge," said Mark Wunuk, spokesman for Montgomery Regional Airport.

Wunuk said despite the decline in passengers, airport revenues still are up from parking and concession fees from its five rental car companies.

"The airlines don't generate the bulk of our revenues," he said. "It's minimal, really. It's really the parking lot that generates more revenue for us."

Three-quarters of the passengers who fly in and out of Montgomery are business people or are associated with Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Wunuk said.

"There are many unknowns. The dust still hasn't settled from 9/11 and the increase in (costs for) aviation fuel," he said. "The airlines are looking at ways to maximize revenues to continue flight operations."

Wunuk asserts that what the Montgomery airport is experiencing is not unusual in the industry for airports its size.

Delta ASA/Connection and Northwest Airlines Airlink both fly for airlines that are trying to emerge from bankruptcy. Wunuk said both airlines have reduced their flights and adjusted their weekend flight schedules in Montgomery.

But now that millions have been spent to spruce up the airport with a new façade and terminals, the question is, will it pay off?

"It depends on whether people come out and use the airport," Wunuk said. "It won't pay off for the city if people drive to Birmingham or Atlanta. We continue to preach that. In the end, the community gets the airport they deserve."

Wunuk said airlines are seeking new airports that will attract customers, and the competition between cities the size of Montgomery is fierce.

"Airlines are looking for airports that have the community behind them," he said. "If you want the airport to be an economic tool, you've got to use it."

Delta ASA/Connection offers the most flights from Montgomery -- six daily to Atlanta and one to Cincinnati; Continental Express has one daily flight and two on Saturdays to Houston; Northwest Airlines Airlink has three daily flights to Memphis, Tenn.; and US Airways Express has three daily flights and two Saturday and Sunday flights to Charlotte, N.C.

The Mobile Regional Airport, which is served by Delta Airlines, US Airlines and three commuter services, American Eagle, Continental Express and Delta ASA/Connection, faces many of the same problems as Montgomery, said Marc Pelham, director of marketing.

Pelham said the tougher airport screening procedures that were put in place in August put a damper on flights.

"That caused an immediate drop in advanced bookings," Pelham said. "We're just now seeing bookings stretch back out. We saw it drop all over the region."

Pelham said a slowdown in the economy also is affecting air travel adversely, adding, "Ultimately, the economy drives air travel."

Pelham said the Mobile airport makes about half its revenues from car rentals and parking and a combination of landing fees and the number of people flying through the airport.

"The price of fuel has decreased, so that's encouraging," he said. "What has proved out wrong is the prediction of the hub and spoke (demise). The hub-and-spoke system is alive and well. The legacy (main-line) carriers we have here have the root structure to get you there. That is encouraging and the growth of the second-tier carriers is encouraging.

"Could things be better? Certainly. But considering the state of the industry, we can't be anything but optimistic."

Huntsville, which is a smaller city than Montgomery, is served by four main-line airlines: American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines and US Airways. In addition, it has service from commuter carriers American Airlink, Comair and Northwest Airlink.

The Rocket City, home to the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army's Redstone Arsenal, boasts nonstop service to Dallas, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Orlando, Fla., and Washington.

A recent study by the Boyd Group, a Colorado-based aviation consulting firm, reported major carriers are retiring the turboprops that can serve small airports profitably. The small jets that replace them have much higher costs, thereby hastening the elimination of air service at many smaller airports.

"It is highly unlikely that reducing the number of airline systems will benefit small airports, who actually need more carriers to serve them," the report stated. "Carrier combinations that result in dominance of up to 80 percent at some small airports is in no way conducive to increasing capacity or lower fares. Those whose 'studies' claim otherwise are, at best, wrong."

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