Expected Airport Boom Not to Be At Charlotte Int'l

The airline industry expected this summer to be a boon, predicting the busiest season since 2001. But at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, July looked no better than last.

In Charlotte, 1.33 million passengers boarded planes in July, matching the number of travelers who departed from here the same time a year ago, according to a traffic report on the airport's Web site.

The airport and US Airways, which has its largest hub in Charlotte, both cited a decline in the number of flights for the flat activity. But one industry observer blamed high ticket prices.

Daily flights were down to 607 this July compared with 637 in the same month of 2005, according to the airport report. Trimming costs, US Airways cut out 60 planes from its fleet in the last year, said spokesman Phil Gee.

"When you pull that much capacity out, you are lessening seats and so there is no growth," Gee said.

In August, Gee said US Airways carried 9.3 percent fewer passengers nationally. He did not have Charlotte-specific numbers.

Airport director Jerry Orr also noted that there are fewer flights and said that could be why the number of passengers from Charlotte stayed flat -- on paper, at least. He also said that the monthly passenger count includes travelers connecting through Charlotte as well as those who start out here.

Based on how the parking lots have looked this summer -- more full days than last year, but he didn't have specifics -- Orr said that he wouldn't be surprised if the number of passengers who started their trip in Charlotte rose 5 percent to 10 percent this summer over last. But Orr said he won't get that kind of tally for another five to six months.

Joe Brancatelli, editor of the online travel advice Web site joesentme.com, said the summer season is failing to live up to the industry's expectations because of higher air fares, especially at airports such as Charlotte, one of the priciest in the nation.

"People are starting to resist the price of tickets nationally," Brancatelli said.

Neither Orr nor Gee had specific numbers on how much fares have increased, but both acknowledged that they have. One good reason for that, Gee noted: the rising cost of jet fuel.

The Airport Transport Association says fares are up over last year but still down significantly over 2000. And, it said that fare increases are not keeping pace with rising fuel costs.

Fares this year are up 11.3 percent compared with 2005, but down 10.6 percent from 2000, according to a chart on the trade group's Web site. Meanwhile, fuel prices are up 29 percent from last year and 145 percent from 2000.

Still, the ATA maintains its bullish outlook on the season. It says most carriers are reporting traffic increases for the summer, though traffic dipped after the Aug. 10 London terror plot was discovered and thwarted.

"Our economist believes for the full summer, the industry is still on track for record load factors," said ATA spokesman David Castelveter.

The group believes the industry's summer counts will show that 207 million travelers flew between June 1 and Aug. 31, about a 1 percent increase over last summer.

Copyright: The Observer -- 9/13/06

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