Fewer Passengers Used Lincoln Airport in 2005

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.


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.

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