Wilmington, N.C., Airport Had 22 Percent Increase in Passengers Last Year

Jan. 13--Wilmington's major air carrier, US Airways, spent much of 2005 in bankruptcy before merging with a smaller airline, America West, based two time zones away.

The Port City's second-biggest airline, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, was then sold to make money for its parent company, Delta, which entered bankruptcy as US Airways exited.

Despite those developments -- perhaps, even, in part because of the low prices generated by airlines' financial woes -- Wilmington International Airport continued to draw more passengers. Last year was the most successful in the airport's history, with just more than 700,000 passengers for the year, representing a 22 percent increase over 2004.

The airport's long-range plan, put together a few years ago, hadn't forecast crossing the 700,000-passenger threshold until the end of 2007. Airport Director Jon Rosborough said he credited the surging traffic numbers to more-competitive ticket prices, additional nonstop destinations, an all-jet schedule and an aggressive marketing campaign. "I think that helped get people to check us out, and once they do they see that we really do have competitive prices and are a very convenient facility to use," he said.

Wilmington had historically lost about 30 percent of the local traveler market to other airports, predominantly Raleigh-Durham, as passengers sought out lower airfares.

Even US Airways' decision to pull all of its big jets out of the Port City in early December didn't take the luster off the airport's strong 2005 performance.

Wilmington finished December with 841 fewer passengers than December 2004. It lost hundreds of daily seats when the Boeing 737s were withdrawn and replaced with smaller regional jets.

The airport's robust traffic numbers stand in sharp contrast to the situation at many other regional airports, which have seen their flight schedules cut -- and their passenger numbers tumble -- as financially ailing carriers pull back from smaller markets.

Among North Carolina airports to recently lose flights are Hickory, Kinston and even Triad International Airport.

Wilmington also grew at a faster rate than rivals Myrtle Beach and Raleigh-Durham international airports.

Through the first 11 months of 2005, Myrtle Beach saw a roughly 3 percent increase in traffic. Raleigh-Durham, whose final numbers won't be in until next week, is expecting about 7 percent growth in passenger numbers. But can Wilmington's strong double-digit growth hold, especially as US Airways and Delta continue to streamline operations to save money?

"It's going to be hard maintaining those kind of growth numbers because it's all predicated on the available equipment," Rosborough said, referring to the airlines replacing larger aircraft with smaller planes.

He estimated growth this year would be about 10 percent. Since May 2003, Wilmington has added nonstop flights to Philadelphia, New York-LaGuardia and Cincinnati, although it also lost service to Reagan Washington National.

Already this year US Airways has dropped one of the Port City's three nonstop flights to Philadelphia, and next month Comair, another Delta commuter partner, is suspending its two daily flights to Cincinnati through mid-April.

The airlines are cutting flights, or bringing in smaller aircraft, to better match supply with demand. In Wilmington's case, the move by US Airways to replace its Boeing 737s with regional jets has seen the proportion of seats filled on planes jump from about 72 percent to nearly 90 percent.

"If they can make more money, fill more seats and retain their market share, why wouldn't they do it?" said Tom Parsons, founder and chief executive officer of Internet discount travel site Bestfares.com. Rosborough said he expects the return of all the flights, along with some of the big jets US Airways pulled out of Wilmington, by spring as the warmer weather drives up airport traffic.

Buoyed by a strong business traveler base, which constitutes about 72 percent of airport passengers, he said Wilmington is well-positioned to attract and retain airlines.

There are also plans this spring to start direct international service to Bermuda and London, England, by carrier Fly First Class, although a startup date has yet to be announced.

Southeastern North Carolina also continues to grow, having attracted more than 104,000 new residents since 2000, further fueling air traffic. Although there's certainly room for improvement, Parsons said Wilmington is in a good position.

Thanks to price competition from Raleigh-Durham and Myrtle Beach and a decision by US Airways to defend its nearly 76 percent share of the local market, he said, fares out of the Port City are largely competitive on many routes.

That includes fares to New York-LaGuardia, which are actually lower than Raleigh's ticket prices -- although Parsons cautioned that high prices still dominate on less-competitive routes out of Wilmington. "Considering your size and your location, I think you guys should be dancing in the skies," he said. "Overall, you're getting a much better deal than other airports much bigger than you, like Cincinnati."