Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport has lost customers to the Richmond airport, but Delta Air Lines and Delta Connections' flight reductions seem to be the main factors in the local airport's first-quarter drop in passenger traffic, airport officials said.
Traffic fell 4.2 percent - or from 220,801 travelers in the first quarter of last year to 211,492 in the same quarter this year. The drop occurred after several years of record growth in passenger traffic for the Newport News airport. Last year, the growth was 16 percent; in 2004, 26 percent; and in 2003, 23 percent.
Meanwhile, Richmond International Airport saw its passenger traffic jump 8.8 percent, as it served 674,664 travelers in this year's first quarter, up from 620,340 last year. Spokesman Troy Bell attributed the rise to "something of a honeymoon stage with fares." Low-cost carrier JetBlue's first flights out of Richmond began just as the quarter ended, and airTran Airways has been there for less than a year.
Across the country, miles flown by paying passengers are up a modest 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2006, the Air Transport Association's survey of several major airlines indicated.
That's largely because, like Delta, a number of airlines have cut some domestic capacity, said John Heimlich, the Washington, D.C.-based association's chief economist.
Heimlich said the capacity cuts had happened because of high fuel prices and because fares had been too low to cover costs. Airlines are putting more emphasis on a revenue mix and pricing, rather than volume, he said.
Norfolk International Airport officials attributed their first-quarter drop in passenger traffic to these cuts in capacity. Wayne Shank, the airport's deputy executive director, said its number of available seats fell about 20 percent in the past year.
With that, Norfolk's first-quarter passenger traffic was down 4.7 percent, falling from 840,905 travelers in 2005 to 801,294 in 2006. Shank said another factor in the decrease was competition with Newport News and Richmond.
Despite the recent decline, Newport News airport officials are expecting to see an increase soon in available seats and therefore a busy summer. Delta is adding capacity to Atlanta and new service to Orlando, Fla. AirTran Airways will use more Boeing 737s and add a third daily flight to Boston, Business Development Manager Jim Evans said.
In Richmond, JetBlue's first flight was March 31, the last day of the first quarter. But even before then, spokesman Bell said, other airlines in Richmond were starting to match JetBlue's fares, boosting the airport's passenger traffic numbers.
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Passenger traffic at the airport slipped 4.71 percent in the first quarter of 2006 compared with the same period last year.
Norfolk International Airport had another record-breaking year in 2005, with 3.9 million passengers.
The airport's March increase of 8.01 percent surpassed the national average of a 3 percent jump.
Low-fare JetBlue and AirTran have targeted Richmond's top two destinations -- New York and Atlanta, putting them "much more in tune" with the local market than Southwest.