Continental First Airline to Return to Pre-Katrina Flight Level in N.O.

U.S. airlines are rapidly adding flights at New Orleans, and the storm-ravaged city will soon have more than half the volume of its pre-Katrina air service.

The number of airline seats scheduled to leave New Orleans' Louis Armstrong airport this month represents 46% of the year-ago total, according to a USA TODAY analysis of schedule data from Back Aviation Solutions. For June, airlines have scheduled 57% of the number of departing seats in June 2005.

"None of us really thought that we'd be at this level," airport director Roy Williams says. Once the USA's 42nd-busiest airport, Louis Armstrong lost all commercial air service after the Aug.29 hurricane. Its facilities were used to treat survivors of the storm and subsequent flooding.

Continental Airlines recently announced new flights to Houston, Newark, N.J., and Cleveland, making it the first carrier to return to its pre-Katrina level of service.

Discount giant Southwest has resumed its pre-Katrina position as the city's No.1 carrier despite a June schedule that calls for just 40% of the seats it had a year earlier.

By June, airlines will have restored non-stop flights to 33 airports, vs. 44 airports before Katrina. Displacement from the storm is partly dictating patterns for restoring service. Continental, for instance, is ramping up Houston service quickly because of the large number of storm survivors living there. Also, the storm has changed the mix of New Orleans air travelers: fewer conventioneers and tourists, more relief and reconstruction workers and government employees.

The average ticket for March travel to New Orleans costs 13% less than it did last year, compared with a 13% increase for the average domestic ticket, according to Sabre Airline Solutions. Contributing to the disparity: bargain fares designed to stimulate demand for New Orleans travel, and more relatively low fares set by contract with the government for its employees' travel.

Sabre airline consultant Vijay Bathija says further air service growth hinges on the city's recovery. "It could return to normal levels providing all the ingredients are in place," he says.

Challenges to full recovery of its previous air service:

*Fewer conventions. The city lost all its big conventions through June. Whether that business can be restored will partly determine air service levels.

*Population decline. The New Orleans metro area has 25% fewer people now vs. pre-Katrina, says market research firm Claritas.

*Better opportunities for airlines. In the uncertainty following Katrina, many carriers found other uses for planes, making a return to New Orleans less a priority. US Airways, for example, launched Hawaii service. And Southwest has grown in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Denver.

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