Pennsylvania Airport Sees Slight Rise in January Passenger Traffic

Feb. 22--Traffic at Lehigh Valley International Airport rose for the second month in a row, after a solid year of declines.

Passenger volume crept up 0.5 percent in January to 55,315, compared to the same month in 2005. Year-over-year, traffic fell for 12 consecutive months at LVIA from December 2004 through November 2005.

The airport has seen dramatic drops in passenger volume on some of the larger carriers that fly at LVIA, including US Airways and Delta. In addition, it has not fully recovered from the November 2004 departure of Southeast Airlines, a tiny carrier that flew popular, nonstop flights to three cities in Florida.

January's traffic statistics are the first LVIA has released since announcing passenger volume fell about 18 percent in 2005. By contrast, worldwide air traffic rose 5.5 percent last year to surpass 4 billion passengers, according to Airports Council International.

The Hanover Township, Lehigh County, airport continued to see steep declines on several of the major airlines in January. Traffic fell 31 percent last month on LVIA's No. 2 carrier, Delta Connection, which flies daily to Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Traffic at US Airways, the airport's No. 1 carrier, which operates daily nonstop flights to Charlotte, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, fell 9 percent last month. Since January 2004, US Airways traffic has fallen 17 percent at LVIA. Northwest, the airport's No. 4 carrier, saw a 15 percent drop during the month.

LVIA's top official, George Doughty, said some of the major airlines are flying smaller planes with fewer seats, and at times are cutting down on daily departures at LVIA. For flights and seats that remain, some of the larger airlines have raised fares dramatically, Doughty said Tuesday.

"Unless you have a low-cost carrier at your airport, you're getting this treatment," said Doughty, the executive director of Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which operates LVIA.

The Lehigh Valley experienced a 41 percent rise in public transportation prices in 2005, driven largely by higher airline prices at LVIA, according to The Morning Call/Kamran Afshar Consumer Price Index.

Doughty said other Pennsylvania airports not served by large, low-fare airlines are facing the same predicament.

Fred Testa, the top official at Harrisburg International Airport, agreed airlines such as US Airways are overcharging passengers in the smaller markets to offset losses they are taking in some of the bigger cities. The airlines, he said, don't realize there is a large potential market in areas such as Harrisburg and the Lehigh Valley.

"We all know you can [charge] a premium out of a regional airport," Testa said. "To not fly out of Philadelphia, people are willing to pay more, but they are not willing to pay $800 more."

Traffic at Harrisburg's airport fell 5.6 percent last year to 1.3 million. By contrast, traffic is up and fares are down at Philadelphia International Airport, where the nation's No. 1 low-fare airline, Southwest Airlines, began flying in 2005.

Many airlines have slashed flights and raised fares in response to high fuel costs. Harrisburg was poised to announce the arrival of AirTran this year, Testa said. Instead, AirTran pulled out because fuel prices have continued to rise, he said.

LVIA officials are hoping Allegiant Air and Hooters, which took over some of Southeast's routes, will fill in the gap. The two low-fare airlines, which began flying at LVIA last year, had a combined 7,413 passengers in January, or 13 percent of total traffic. By contrast, Southeast frequently accounted for 25 percent of LVIA's monthly traffic when it flew at LVIA in 2003 and 2004.

Passenger traffic increased last month on United Express, which flies to Chicago, and on Continental, which flies to Cleveland and Boston.

LVIA logged more than 1 million passengers in 2004. In an interview in January, Doughty said he hopes LVIA will reach 1 million passengers again this year.