New Orleans Airport Making Recovery Plans

For 34 nights, Roy Williams slept in his office overlooking the runways at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

In that time, the suddenly homeless aviation director watched as his airport went from serving 14,000 departing passengers a day to housing about 10,000 evacuees as a hurricane shelter and makeshift hospital. For two stressful weeks in August and September, the continent's 41st busiest airport fell off the radar.

Now Williams is looking to Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, once the dominant carrier in New Orleans, to help put his airport back on the map.

But he and his staff are frustrated that Southwest hasn't moved more planes into New Orleans.

Southwest is operating 13 daily departures from the Crescent City, down from 57 before the storm.

"They were once the big players on the block, and now they're just one of the many carriers that serve the airport," said Sean Hunter, deputy director of aviation for the New Orleans airport. "For a lot of our concession opportunities, you kind of live and die by Concourse B, where Southwest resides. So for those opportunities that are in B today, it's very nil."

Most of the other airlines are running considerably reduced schedules as well. Fort Worth-based American Airlines has resumed six daily departures. Four carriers have not resumed service.

In all, 87 days after reopening to commercial airline service, New Orleans has brought back 60 of its previously scheduled 166 daily departures, or 36 percent of its load.

But particular attention is being paid to Southwest because of its past loyalty, Hunter said. The Big Easy was the first destination Southwest expanded to outside Texas.

"We all assumed and thought they'd be the first carrier to jump back into the market and add service on a routine basis," he said. "That hasn't happened."

A Southwest official disagreed, saying his company wants to grow in New Orleans as fast as possible.

"We've been slowly but surely building back up there, but you have to have people who want the city as their destination," said Ed Stewart, a Southwest spokesman. "At the end of the day, people have to come back so that it makes sense to increase plane service."

New Orleans airport executives, who came to North Texas this week for an airport industry economic conference at the Grand Hyatt DFW, are not happy with Southwest's decision to move some of its empty planes from New Orleans to other parts of the country, including a new market in Denver and new routes from Dallas Love Field to Missouri.

"I think they were completely wrong," Williams said Monday. He also told conference attendees during a session on airport emergency planning that he has shared his views with Herb Kelleher, the airline's founder and chairman.

Stewart said in a phone interview that Southwest is right where it needs to be in meeting demand with 13 daily departures, which include five to Houston and two each to Dallas Love Field; Nashville, Tenn.; and Orlando and Tampa Bay, Fla.

"We're keeping a very close eye on how New Orleans recovers," Stewart said. "We have a fondness for New Orleans."

The airline spent more than $2 million flying stranded passengers and evacuees out of the airport. Southwest has scheduled its annual shareholders' meeting in February in New Orleans, and the company has spent additional money in the past to sponsor civic events such as New Orleans jazz festivals, Stewart said.

When the 42-gate airport was closed to commercial traffic Aug. 28, Southwest had to move quickly to find other money-making uses for its planes, Stewart said.

"You have a very expensive asset," he said. "You have to utilize it, and you have to go to places for people to fill the empty planes. That is our fiduciary interest."

The airline decided "very wisely" to move the planes elsewhere, said Terry Trippler, an airline expert at Minneapolis-based Cheapseats.com.

"Southwest has only got so many planes," he said. "I understand how vital air transportation is to a city, and once you've lost it, it's hard to get it back. New Orleans is trying to get everything back to normal."

In November, the airport drafted a financial recovery plan that holds two goals for getting back to normal.

The baseline scenario assumes that the airport will add an average of two flights a month until 2010 before it reaches its pre-Katrina level of about 5 million departing passengers a year.

By comparison, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport last year was about five times busier.

The three-year recovery scenario calls for an average of 3.25 additional flights per month until 2008.

Right now, the airport is planning on the faster goal to keep costs as low as possible and not drag out rebuilding costs, Hunter said.

In the end, the airlines are essentially paying the same total costs after the hurricane as they were before, said Edward Shelswell-White, Southwest's regional director of properties for the eastern United States.

The airport, which usually sets its annual budget for revenues and expenses at about $70 million, is projecting a cash-flow deficit between $41 million and $62 million, depending on the length of the turnaround.

It has already laid off 100 of its 230 employees.

And although passenger traffic has steadily picked up, Hunter is worried.

The bulk of the demand is being filled by less price-sensitive travelers, he said. As a result, fares have been driven up considerably, Hunter said.

The airport doesn't have exact figures, but Topaz International Ltd., based in Portland, Ore., tracks prices of tickets bought by corporate-travel agents. For September through November, average one-way fares for business travel went up 43 percent, from $170 last year to $243.81 this year, according to Topaz.

"It is just a downright bummer, but that's just the way it is," said Trippler, of Cheapseats.com. "It's going to be awhile. Get the infrastructure in place so the tourists will want to come back. It will be interesting to see Mardi Gras. That could be the beginning of the comeback."

ONLINE: Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport, www.flymsy.com

Fort Worth Star Telegram


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