Bob Molle is under no illusions about what the coming year holds for him.
"I'm calling this spring 'the perfect storm,' " he said, a half-smile on his face. Even he's not sure if he's joking.
Molle, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority's director of engineering, is in charge of building two new concourses at Jacksonville International Airport, a two-year, $100 million project that will replace the 40-year-old structures where passengers now embark. Behind the scenes, he'll also be overseeing a complete overhaul of the airport's baggage screening system, rushing to get a new, $18 million setup in place before the 2006 holiday season.
"I'm quite confident we'll be up to the task," said Molle, who is also in charge of a $44 million expansion of the airplane parking areas.
But, as the airport is looking at expansion, the aviation industry is facing contraction, with the number of carriers and the number of flights all trending downward in 2005 as airlines struggled with skyrocketing fuel prices and increased security costs.
The Aviation Authority has no plans to slow down its construction plans, though, no matter the state of the aviation industry. The local market will continue to grow, authority officials are betting, leading more carriers to find Jacksonville an attractive place to be; a bigger terminal and higher level of service can only help the airport become even more competitive, officials with the authority said.
IT'S BEEN A ROUGH COUPLE OF YEARS
To attract more carriers and get more First Coast residents to pass through JIA's gates, though, local aviation officials have to hope that the airline industry can work itself back into decent shape -- although, ironically, the airlines getting too strong could be detrimental to local airports.
The balance sheets of airline companies have been in a steep dive since 2000, the last time the airlines as a group have reported a profit. Since that $2.5 billion payday, airlines have posted a cumulative $42 billion loss, including a projected $10 billion loss last year.
The industry is responding by getting smaller: The number of airlines in operation has dropped, from 164 in 2003 to 124 last year, and the number of people employed by U.S.-based passenger airlines has dropped compared to the previous year each month throughout 2005.
In November, the latest month for which data is available, employment was down 6.4 percent industry-wide, with the large legacy carriers having a full 9 percent fewer employees in November 2005 than it did the year before. That was the 11th consecutive month of year-over-year declines in airline employment levels and the largest decrease during the year.
Since 2001, legacy carriers -- the large national airlines that were founded decades ago, before the airline industry was deregulated -- have shed 28 percent of their workforces.
"People say demand [for air travel] is back, and I always say 'Back to what?' " said John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for the Air Transport Association of America.
Although Heimlich has a somewhat optimistic outlook for 2006, he points out that revenue levels are still far below what they were projected to be five years ago. And, he says, air travel as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is smaller than it was just a few years ago.
With an $11 billion fuel bill last year, that makes becoming profitable a difficult task.
Cutbacks have an effect locally, too. Next month, the eight airlines that serve Jacksonville will have an average of 726 flights per week, providing about 73,000 seats -- down from last year's peak of 805 flights in November and 731 in December. Last February, the average week saw 777 flights with 84,000 seats, and January 2005 had 709 flights with 71,846 seats.
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