Passenger Traffic Takes Off at Richmond, Va., Airport as Airfares Fall

The planes in Richmond are filling up because fares have fallen.

That's one take on yesterday's report to the Capital Region Airport Commission showing the 10th consecutive month of record passenger traffic - a trend fueled by fare competition and a strong area economy, officials said.

"The local economy of Richmond is booming," according to Jon Mathiasen, who is president and chief executive officer of Richmond International Airport.

Business and leisure travel alike have been humming along, officials said, leading to a record one-day passenger count on April 7 - the Friday before many families with school children went on spring break.

According to the airport's figures, 6,700 people boarded planes in Richmond that day - 500 more than the last record day on July 1, 2005.

"April 7 was a spike," said Richmond airport spokesman Troy Bell. "It was more than 50 percent more than the average day. We've had nothing like it all year."

The airport's March increase of 8.01 percent surpassed the national average of a 3 percent jump.

Richmond's performance contrasted with declines reported at Norfolk International Airport, which saw a 6.75 percent drop, while Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport's count fell by 5.2 percent.

"We're grabbing people from Tidewater," said airport commissioner Beverley "Booty" Armstrong of Richmond. The airport has stemmed the exodus of local travelers to other airports, he said.

Ken Scott, executive director of the Norfolk airport, said fare competition in Newport News and Richmond appeared to siphon some passengers last month from his facility.

Scott cited Richmond's success in recruiting low-fare AirTran and JetBlue during the past year. Getting the two budget-fare air carriers "certainly contributed to us and Newport News being down, because I think we were getting some Richmonders," he said.

Jim Evans, manager of business development at Newport News/Williamsburg, said he'd lost some Richmonders, too. But Evans said an even larger factor in his airport's passenger drop was Delta Air Lines' flight reductions.

"They're ramping that back up in May," Evans said. AirTran, which also serves Newport News, is adding flights as well, he said.

Mathiasen said he views the regional airline market like his old stomping grounds in Southern California, where travelers drive a long way to get the best fares.

"I think we'll see people going back and forth" to various airports, including those in Northern Virginia, he said.

Mathiasen also reported a spike in passengers traveling from Richmond to Atlanta - making the Georgia city the top destination, replacing New York City.

AirTran Airways, which flies to Atlanta, accounts for much of that change, along with more flights by Atlanta-based Delta.

The local travel equation could change, though, as JetBlue Airways recently added service to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Mathiasen said he's found business fares - bought within three days of a trip - of $225 round trip to New York-area airports. That compares to more than $700 for the same trip a year ago, he said.

MARCH PASSENGER TRAFFIC, BY AIRPORT

* Richmond: +8.01%

* Newport News/Williamsburg: -5.2%

* Norfolk: -6.75%

LOWER FARES LURE PASSENGERS

The entrance of AirTran Airways - with low-fare service to Atlanta and other price competition - helped drive down ticket costs and attract more travelers to Richmond International Airport, according to a report released yesterday. Here are highlights of the comparison of 2005 with 2004:

* Hot 'Lanta: Atlanta overtook New York City as the top stop from Richmond last year, with a nearly 69 percent increase in passengers - a total of 226,800. Fares dropped nearly 35 percent, with a one-way average ticket price of $119.97.

* Big Apple: The average one-way fare to New York City was $164, a 16.1 percent drop from 2004. Passenger traffic to New York increased 9.74 percent.


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