Spirit, Ft. Laud.-Hollywood Airport Suffer Biggest Blow After Wilma

Hurricane Wilma's attack on South Florida was a financial hit to all airlines, but analysts say Miramar-based Spirit will suffer the most, after storm-related airport closures canceled nearly half of its flights Monday through Wednesday.

The storm also will be a blow to the airport itself, in lost parking fees and landing revenues, and the airport may request government aid to repair damage.

Spirit executives said they wondered last week if the storm was targeting them. It first ravaged CancĂșn, Mexico, an important Spirit leisure destination. Wilma then shut down Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport -- its home base and busiest airport -- for three days and West Palm Beach International for two.

''We looked at the map and wondered what was going on,'' said Spirit president Ben Baldanza.

Airline consultant Michael Roach said Wilma was bad news for an industry already struggling.

''Some of them are in little position to withstand more blows, but in the big picture this isn't that important,'' Roach said. ``But it will impact Spirit more than anyone else.''

LAST YEAR

In last year's hurricane season, Spirit estimated it took a $3 million to $5 million hit after canceling a weekend's worth of flights. Baldanza said his finance department is still calculating Wilma losses, but stressed it will only have one long-term impact: delaying additional flights to CancĂșn.

Spirit had planned to start new service from Tampa later this year, but that plan has been pushed back because the resort's tourist infrastructure is crippled.

''This was a lot worse than last year for two reasons,'' said Baldanza. ``Cancun has real issues, and 5 percent of our airline flies there. Second, Broward County got hit particularly hard.''

To prepare for Wilma, Spirit sent about 24 employees to suburban Detroit, its former headquarters, to monitor its flights. The airline's call-center at the Miramar Park of Commerce has been running on a generator. Employees have been grilling hot dogs and hamburgers in between booking others' vacations.

This year's record-breaking hurricane season has made airlines scramble, moving planes, juggling schedules, and, after Hurricane Katrina, altering entire route schedules.

Though the three-day travel loss will eventually be absorbed, the ripple effect of temporarily losing the South Florida market is significant.

''It's bad news to have your hometown airport shut down for three days,'' said airline consultant Michael Boyd, of the Boyd Group. ``Last hurricane season traffic out of Wichita dropped. Why? People weren't going to Florida.''

Said Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly: ``We don't make money when our planes are on the ground.''

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood was closed for three days, its longest weather-related closure since Hurricane King in 1950. Officials said airport traffic is returning to pre-storm levels.

''The financial impact was quite extreme to us,'' said Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport spokesman Steve Bellame. ``We've lost parking fees and landing revenues.''

APPLYING FOR AID

Bellame said the airport may apply for government assistance to repair leaky roofs and other damages.

After Spirit, American Airlines was likely impacted the most, though Miami International, one of its three domestic hubs, was open a day before Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood. On Monday and Tuesday, American canceled 500 of its 3,900 daily flights -- about one in eight -- said spokesman Tim Wagner.

The airline is now running at full-speed from MIA, except for a few flights to South America because some gates remain damaged.

Southwest Airlines has been particularly impacted by the 2005 hurricane season. One of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood's largest carriers, it also had a large presence in New Orleans, where air service has been decimated after Katrina.

Miami Herald


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