Jan. 29--Passenger traffic at McGhee Tyson Airport last year set a record, with a 15 percent increase over 2004, but high fuel costs and Independence Air's departure have created concern about passenger numbers rising in 2006.
A total of 1.85 million travelers flew to and from Knoxville in 2005, compared to 1.6 million in 2004, according to the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, the agency that manages McGhee Tyson and Downtown Island Airport.
Dave Conklin, airport authority spokesman, predicts that passenger levels at McGhee Tyson won't surpass 2005 results, citing high fuel costs. Conklin said he expects 1.75 million to 1.8 million travelers this year.
"We don't know what will happen with jet fuels and other intangibles. There are a lot of unknowns, fuel being the big one," Conklin said.
And airport officials are working to recruit more service to Knoxville to alleviate the loss of low-fare carrier Independence, which went out of business earlier this month.
At least one local travel expert questions whether passenger numbers will be as high in 2006 as they were in 2005. Contributing to the concern is the fact that many of the major carriers serving McGhee Tyson and the nation's other airports are having financial problems.
For 2006, McGhee Tyson could add a "point-to-point" airline that serves only specific markets, but airport authority officials declined to identify the airline or provide details about any negotiations.
The airport authority also is encouraging airlines serving Knoxville to keep fares competitive in the wake of Independence's shutdown.
The fare factor Despite the presence of Independence, other airlines eclipsed the low-fare carrier in passenger loads last year.
Delta Connection, with 411,556 passengers in 2005, was the leader among the nine airlines flying out of McGhee Tyson. Delta Connection had 356,005 Knoxville passengers in 2004.
The airline recording the second largest passenger load in 2005 was US Airways Express, with 271,946 travelers, an 11 percent increase from 244,651 in 2004. US Airways Express was followed by Delta, Northwest Airlink, American Eagle, United Express, Continental Express, Independence and Northwest.
Independence, which filed for bankruptcy before going out of business Jan. 5, was ranked eighth -- ahead of only Northwest -- with 138,107 passengers for the 12 months ended Dec. 31. In 2004, Independence flew 67,851 passengers to and from McGhee Tyson after entering the Knoxville market in July.
Independence is credited with lowering the fares that many of the airlines serving McGhee Tyson charge. But fares have been on the rise so far in 2006 and may continue upward.
There was a national fare increase last weekend assessed by all airlines serving Knoxville, Conklin said. A check of fares to the airport's top 10 destinations last week using Orbitz.com showed some fares slightly higher and some less than when Independence was flying here.
An example of a fare checked on Orbitz.com is a trip to Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport. The lowest leisure fare on Jan. 3 before Independence Air's departure was $174 on United Express and US Airways Express. On Wednesday, the cheapest fare was $133 on Northwest.
Leisure fares require advance booking and a weekend stay.
A leisure fare of $253 to another popular destination -- Orlando, Fla. -- on Delta offered Jan. 3 had increased to $328 on US Airways on Wednesday. Both ticket prices were the lowest at the time.
"Fares are a moving target," Conklin said. "Day by day, you never know what you're going to get."
The airport authority and East Tennesseans for Airfare Competition, a local group promoting low-fare air service to Knoxville, have logged many hours recruiting and trying to keep a discount carrier. The airport authority paid Independence $160,000 to help the airline market its services in East Tennessee.
McGhee Tyson Airport to offer airline services
The airport panel agreed to create a general manager's position to oversee the Allegiant ground and ticketing operations in Chattanooga.
Knoxville area travelers will be able to fly nonstop to 18 cities when United Express adds a flight to Denver from Knoxville's McGhee Tyson Airport.
Airlines that are in bankruptcy or restructuring have been cutting seating capacity, making fewer seats available.