When the American Library Association brought its annual conference to New Orleans last month, tourism officials praised the return of the city's convention business. But while the 18,000-person conference was largely regarded as a success, the event also exposed the limits of the city's post-Hurricane Katrina air service.
One attendee had to drive to the conference from Houston after her flight from San Antonio was delayed, causing her to miss a connecting flight to New Orleans. There wasn't another available seat for two days. And some conference sessions were canceled when speakers couldn't get flights into the city.
The challenges illustrate the difficulty in getting the tourism industry up and running while there are only two-thirds the number of flights and about half the number of seats there were before the storm.
It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma: If there were more visitors, including conventioneers and tourists, there'd be more flights, but the reduced air service is making it harder to attract these travelers.
Interestingly, business travel to Louis Armstrong International Airport, an important source of airline profits, has jumped since Katrina, as a result of what interim airport director Sean Hunter calls "artificial citizens" of the city -- government and corporate employees who are regularly in and out of the New Orleans area as part of the recovery effort.
Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina grounded air travel into and out of Armstrong Airport, there are 107 daily departures to 33 cities, compared to 166 departures to 42 cities before the storm.
But the sheer number of post-Katrina flights can be a deceptively optimistic measure because many airlines are using smaller planes on their New Orleans routes. The airlines now offer 12,000 daily seats on flights through New Orleans, slightly more than half the 21,000 seats available on an average day before the storm.
Air service to New Orleans -- vital before Katrina -- is even more important now as local officials work to convince leisure travelers and conventioneers that New Orleans is indeed capable of accommodating them.
Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., said the recovery of air service to the city since the storm has been "positive but incremental." Nonetheless, it's still "not sufficient with where we want to be with some of the larger conventions that want to come here later in the year," Perry said.
What's more, abundant air service is also necessary to retain and attract the corporate businesses that will help to put the local economy back on its feet. At least one company says limited air service was a factor in its decision to relocate from Metairie to Atlanta.
It could be a while before air service to New Orleans returns to pre-Katrina levels. And it'll take more than loyalty to the city to bring airlines back, industry leaders say.
Partly that's because Katrina's aftermath has coincided with a second calamity: skyrocketing fuel prices.
"It would be a bad decision for them to come back to New Orleans just because you feel bad for New Orleans," said Terry Trippler, an airline expert at myvacationpassport.com. "In years past, airlines might have done that; now you can't do that with oil at more than $80 a barrel."
But experts agree that air service to the city eventually will improve.
"This is not the time to panic. You're New Orleans for crying out loud. This is not some backwater," said Michael Boyd, an airline expert and president of aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group. "There may be this fear that air service will never come back to where it was. That's crazy. It certainly will."
Industry tightens belt
The slow return of air service to New Orleans is in part a symptom of larger business challenges in the industry. With record high jet fuel prices and several airlines either in bankruptcy or on the brink, carriers are operating more efficiently than ever. Their goal, at least for now, is to put fewer airplanes in the sky, not more.
In New Orleans, carrier takes measured approach
87 days after reopening to commercial airline service, New Orleans has brought back 60 of its previously scheduled 166 daily departures, or 36 percent of its load.
Southwest is trying to pace its return in New Orleans with the city's rebuilding.