Commercial air service serving Lincoln was down more than a tenth last year, according to passenger figures released by the Lincoln Airport Authority.
Airline and airport officials say they don't expect more losses of flights and destinations, but they acknowledge annoying local inconveniences, flight delays and cancellations caused by the overloaded O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Travel agents say a combination of local circumstances also means more people are catching flights in Omaha.
Northwest Airlink carried 162,416 passengers to or from Lincoln last year - 23.2 percent more than in 2004 - but the airline recently dropped its service between Lincoln and Memphis, Tenn., and dropped from three daily Lincoln-Detroit round trips to one.
Passengers on the other major commercial service, nine daily United Express flights linking Lincoln to Chicago and Denver, fell 10.81 percent to 235,104 passengers last year.
United and Northwest are going through bankruptcy proceedings. Both say they plan to continue serving Lincoln.
Northwest and United aren't really abandoning Lincoln, said Steve Glenn, president of Executive Travel and a former member of the Airport Authority's advisory board, but rather are gripped by their bankruptcies.
Northwest is facing labor troubles with pilots, mechanics (who are already on strike) and flight attendants. Its regional affiliate, which serves Lincoln, is operated by Pinnacle Airlines.
United spokesman Jeff Green said reduced traffic is a result of planned reductions in capacity. The airline has focused its attention on more profitable international routes and reduced the use of wide-body jets on domestic routes.
Locally, it uses 50- or 70-seat planes, Green said.
Despite the decline in passenger numbers, he said, United is happy with its percentage of occupied seats, called the load factor, in Lincoln, where he says its service is increasing in popularity.
The airline is monitoring its flight schedule out of Lincoln and will change it if necessary to keep load factors optimal, he said.
But United service between Lincoln and Chicago continues to be viewed as inconvenient.
Congestion at O'Hare International Airport means air traffic controllers have to choose which flights can take off on time, and Lincoln, served by 50-seat regional jets, is usually a long shot for those slots.
"If you have a choice in Chicago of sending 350 people to Tokyo or 50 to Lincoln," Glenn said, "Lincoln will probably fall far down on their list of priority takeoffs and landings."
O'Hare still has its problems as a hub, Airport Authority executive director John Wood said. O'Hare typically operates at or near full capacity, especially on days when bad weather and other factors cause delays, he said.
Hope for Lincoln could be revived by decisions made in Illinois. There could be a new airport built in the Chicago area, Wood said (though with a cost in the tens of billions of dollars, he thinks it unlikely). Planned expansion and renovation at O'Hare could make for more simultaneous takeoffs and landings, he said.
Those improvements probably could relieve congestion within 5 to 10 years, according to Wood.
The uncertainty of O'Hare service has led some local business travelers to book flights out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield, which has more airlines and service to more destinations, Glenn said.
"Any problem at all here, and they basically shoot their whole day," Glenn said.
Almost 4.2 million passengers got on or off planes at Eppley Airfield in 2005, an 8.2 percent increase from 2004, according to statistics kept by the Omaha Airport Authority.
The service at Lincoln Airport could be improved, said Wendy Birdsall, president of the local Convention and Visitors Bureau, but its recent loss of Northwest flights is unlikely to hurt local tourism efforts.
A consultant hired a few years ago suggested the bureau look to bring in events set up to draw people from within a 500-mile radius of Lincoln. Most people attending those events, she said, probably would drive automobiles.
While air service is a key among meeting planners who book events for large cities, it's not a make or break factor for cities like Lincoln, she said.
Lincoln does draw some regional and national events, for which the Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis connections are adequate, she said.
Additional service could help the bureau decide to go after more events outside its core targets, according to Birdsall.
"It would â?¦ give us an opportunity to look at some things we're maybe not focusing on now," she said.
At the same time, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce is trying to recruit new businesses to the area and keep existing businesses thriving here, said Jason Smith, the chamber's vice president of economic development.
For some site selectors, Smith said, proximity to an airport is important. Smith said the chamber sells the area's accessibility not just by mentioning air service from Lincoln, but also that it's just an hour's drive to Eppley. That hour isn't much different from travel times to airports in the Chicago, Atlanta or New York areas, he said.
Smith said that while an increase in air service would be advantageous to Lincoln, it's unfair to say the decline in passenger numbers is hurting the local economy.
"Saying it hurts the economy is to say we're getting less service than what the market demands," Smith said. "And I just don't see that to be the case."
Airline fares going up
Glenn said he expects service to improve locally and otherwise (meaning more flights will arrive on time and fewer will be canceled) at least through March, after which planes will be more full than they ever have been.
There will be 6 percent fewer seats available on all airlines this year, Glenn said, and they'll sell at a higher price.
"If you saw grandma last year, you're going to pay $50 to $75 more to see her this year," he said.
Less congestion possible
There's probably a chance that grandma won't have to stick around her local airport waiting for a much delayed O'Hare connection to arrive, according to Glenn.
He cites the recent announcement of United Express service between Omaha and San Antonio, Texas, as evidence of an emerging "minihub" trend that will, he guesses, ultimately lead to less congestion at hubs.
United plans to connect San Antonio with other cities, too, including Albuquerque, N.M., Colorado Springs, Colo., Kansas City, Mo., Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla., beginning March 3.
Hottest flight in town
Among the hottest tickets for any airline: Allegiant Air service between Lincoln and Las Vegas, which starts Feb. 1. Allegiant's Tyri Squyres said the airline is expecting 85 to 90 percent occupancy of its service for February, March and April.
"The overall demand continues to outpace the rest of our system," she said.
Lincoln-Las Vegas service looks like a winner for leisure travelers, Glenn said.
"Now we just gotta fill these planes," he said.
Count Adventure Travel owner Bill Bennett in the chorus of travel professionals who say the Lincoln-Memphis service, now cancelled, was needed, and that Northwest was wise to put it in place.
"I don't know why we didn't support it," he said.
Wood says he's disappointed Lincoln couldn't keep Memphis service, which Northwest terminated after less than eight months.
According to Smith, the Chamber of Commerce appreciated Northwest's exploration of Lincoln-Memphis service but was disappointed it couldn't sell enough tickets to keep the route profitable.
"It's not a big secret that the one area where we do have a deficiency is in the southern direction," Smith said. "But I understand that, from an airline perspective, it has to make business sense."
Reach Rodd Cayton at 473-7107 or email@example.com.
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