Daily Flights Drop at N.C. Airport

Dec. 13--The number of fare choices at Piedmont Triad International Airport continues to shrink.

In December, daily flights at the airport dropped to 80, down from 92 last month, after Delta Air Lines Inc. and US Airways cut a combined 12 flights. Last year, daily flights were running at 104.

The last time the airport's daily flights dropped that low was in 2003, according to records at the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority. The airport's peak in daily flights was at 165 in June 1995, when Continental still had a hub there.

The flight cuts by Delta and US Airways come as the number of passengers using PTIA are falling, which airport officials attribute primarily to competition from low-fare carriers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Ted Johnson, the executive director of the airport authority, said that airport officials are visiting airlines to try to get its fares on parity with the Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte airports.

PTIA, which has relied on the legacy airlines, has not managed to attract low-fare carriers such as JetBlue Airways or Southwest Airlines, and Independence Air has only three flights a day to and from the airport.

The passenger decrease at PTIA started in June. In October, passengers flying out of the airport fell to 116,888, down 14.5 percent from the same period in 2004.

Johnson said that the October figures were probably driven by the International Home Furnishings Market, when attendance was down 8 percent to 10 percent according to show officials.

"Our highest months are April and October when the market's here," Johnson said. "If the market is down, we're going to be down a little bit, too."

Delta, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and US Airways, which merged with America West Airlines in September, are cutting costs and revamping routes.

At PTIA, Delta is now down to 23 flights and US Airways to 25. Delta eliminated eight flights, removing Tampa and New York's JFK completely (four); and one each to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. US Airways removed all four of its daily flights to Baltimore.

Delta's changes at the airport are part of its plans announced in September to change its domestic and international schedule as the airline focuses on improvements to its route network and revenue to achieve $1.1 billion in annual savings.

Anthony Black, a company spokesman, said that Delta is matching its number of flights with passenger demand.

"What we did as part of our corporate transformation was to work to find a better mix of flights both domestically and internationally out of all the cities that we serve," he said.

Amy Kudwua, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said that PTIA is still an important airport in the US Airways' system.

"It's a simple business decision, based on supply and demand," she said. "We still fly multiple times daily between Greensboro and Washington National Airport."

Keith Debbage, an aviation analyst and a professor of geography at UNC-Greensboro said that there will be far fewer seats available as airlines trim their seat numbers to match real demand.

"So it may be that for the business passenger in certain markets that a little advance preparation may be in order," he said.

Debbage said that there will also be fewer, limited options if consumers are bumped from flights.

He suspects that PTIA will lose more daily flights.

"I think actually we're going to lose a few more flights over the next quarter," he said. "The post Christmas season, particularly February, is a very slow month. I don't think we've quite bottomed out yet,"

But Henry Isaacson, the chairman of the airport authority, said that he and Johnson believe that the cuts are close to the bottom.

"These are just hard times for the industry and we're going to have to go through it," he said.

He said that passengers can still get to the major cities in the eastern part of the United States, including nonstop service to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York and Newark.

"While I'm disappointed that we've lost flights, I'm not overly concerned, and I believe those flights will come back to us in due time," he said.

Johnson said that consumers might have problems getting on some flights during the holiday season, but not normally.

He also doesn't expect passenger numbers, scheduled to be released today, to be down for November, at least not double-digit percentage rates.

So far the decrease in passengers hasn't had a big effect on the airport's operating revenue, which was up 6.4 percent in October at $10. 3 million compared to $9.7 million for the same period in 2004.

Debbage doesn't expect passenger volume to drop quite as dramatically as the number of daily flights since airlines are trying to match demand with their seats.

In fact, he suspects that the decrease in passengers and flights at PTIA are temporary issues.

"I honestly think that come spring and summer the airport will turn it around," he said.

Despite the difficult times in the airline industry, airport authority officials said they are glad that they are expanding the airport's north concourse, a $7 million project that will provide gates for new and existing airlines, including Delta.

"You can't sell something that you don't have," Isaacson said.