NORFOLK -- Higher fares, fewer seats and more competition are starting to eat into air travel at Norfolk International Airport.
Passenger traffic at the airport slipped 4.71 percent in the first quarter of 2006 compared with the same period last year. Nationally, air travel dropped 1 percent for the January to March period, according to the Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade group.
Although Norfolk had a record-breaking year in 2005 with 3.9 million travelers, passenger counts started dipping below the previous years? tally beginning in October . Since then, the airport has not posted positive monthly counts.
?We prefer to see an increase than a downturn,? said Wayne Shank , airport deputy executive director. ?It?s unlikely an airport will see sustained increase in traffic year after year after year. We?ve actually outperformed the industry over the last several years, so I guess it?s our turn.?
Airport officials blame higher fares, limited seats and increased competition.
Financially strapped airlines are cutting service coast-to-coast to save money and drive up ticket prices. U.S. carriers lost about $32 billion combined between 2001 and 2004, driving several major airlines including US Airways and Delta into bankruptcy.
In the past year, the number of daily departures from Norfolk dropped 16.4 percent from 110 to 92. The number of available seats fell 21.3 percent, from 8,500 to 6,691 .
With fewer seats and steady demand, airlines have pushed up ticket prices. Air fares increased 10.6 percent nationwide from February 2005 to February 2006 , according to ATA.
Rising jet fuel costs are expected to nudge airfares even higher.
?We?re a price-sensitive market,? Shank said. ?For leisure travelers, there?s some inclination to postpone travel when prices are high. Some business travelers may instead do a conference call.?
Additionally, Norfolk is facing increasing competition from low-fare airlines serving Newport News/Williamsburg International and Richmond International airports. AirTran launched flights out of Richmond last summer and JetBlue inaugurated service there last month .
The airport already has documented that AirTran?s cheap, direct fares to LaGuardia in New York have cut into New York traffic out of Norfolk.
Meanwhile, for the first quarter , US Airways regained its dominance, albeit slightly, at Norfolk.
US Airways had the largest market share, carrying 22.48 percent of travelers, eking past Southwest, which had 22.15 percent . Delta, which had been No. 1 since 2003 , had a 20.98 percent market share.
Airport officials predict Southwest will overtake the other two airlines before the end of the calendar year. Southwest is the only airline of the three to post gains in ticket sales every month since last summer .
?Based on the trends we?re seeing now, Southwest will be the major carrier this year,? Shank said.
n\Reach Debbie Messina at (757) 446-2588 or debbie.messina@pilot online.com.
Passenger counts Fell 4.71 percent in first quarter, from 840,905 in 2005 to 801,294 in 2006
Daily departures Dropped 16.4 percent, from 110 to 92
Available daily seats Tumbled 21.3 percent, from 8,500 to 6,691 Headed downward
Passenger counts: Fell 4.71 percent in first quarter, from 840,905 in 2005 to 801,294 in 2006
Daily departures: Dropped 16.4 percent, from 110 to 92
Available daily seats: Tumbled 21.3 percent, from 8,500 to 6,691
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Norfolk International Airport had another record-breaking year in 2005, with 3.9 million passengers.
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.
Nearly one-fourth of all flights in and out of Norfolk International Airport last year were delayed, the worst record at the airport in the eight years of U.S. statistics.
The U.S. airline industry is coming off an up-and-down year that saw two major carriers file for bankruptcy but others begin to pull out of a nosedive that began in 2001.