Passenger Traffic Plunges at Lehigh Valley Airport

Nov. 16--Passenger traffic at Lehigh Valley International Airport dropped nearly 30 percent in October from the same period last year, as the number of travelers fell on nearly all airlines serving the airport.

With 64,328 passengers flying to and from LVIA last month, it was the lowest October traffic count since 1995.

Traffic at LVIA has been down all year but until last month's drop, the gap between last year's passenger count and this year's was narrowing.

Airport officials said many of the airlines serving LVIA offered lower fares last month at Philadelphia International Airport but charged higher fares here. George Doughty, executive director of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which operates LVIA, said airlines can sometimes afford to offer higher fares here because there is less competition.

"They went up dramatically, and I assume it was fuel-related," Doughty said, referring to the high fuel costs that have plagued the airline industry this year.

He added, "It was the airlines attempting to recoup their fuel costs and they could do it here, I guess, but they could not do it down in Philadelphia because Southwest Airlines hedged its fuel."

Southwest, which began flying from Philadelphia last year, is the only major airline that was able to buy jet fuel in advance at a discount, so it has weathered the high costs much better than its competitors.

Doughty said fares at LVIA have since dropped.

Airport traffic at LVIA has been down since December 2004, when Southeast Airlines, which offered low-cost, nonstop flights to popular cities in Florida, ceased operating. Southeast had become LVIA's No. 1 airline.

In recent months, LVIA had begun to narrow the gap in the number of passengers from last year. But then at the end of September, discount carrier TransMeridian Airlines went out of business. TransMeridian had been brought in to take over some of Southeast's routes. Another carrier, Allegiant Air of Las Vegas, will take over some of the Orlando flights starting next month.

Doughty estimated TransMeridian would have flown 4,000 to 5,000 passengers in October, had it continued to operate here. He also said Hooters Air, which flies to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and other destinations, flew fewer passengers last month compared with September.

Passenger traffic fell on US Airways, Northwest, Delta and Continental. Volume increased on Air Georgian, which flies daily to Toronto, and United Express, which has daily flights to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Year-to-date, 707,206 passengers have flown to and from LVIA, down 18 percent from last year. Last year, the airline had more than 1 million passengers.