Four Years Later, Orlando International Airport is Back on Track

Aug. 18--After four years, Orlando International Airport is finally poised for the growth it expected before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks devastated the tourism industry.

The number of passengers at OIA and the airport's proposed 2006 budget of more than $300 million will for the first time exceed pre-9-11 projections, airport officials said Wednesday.

Despite an increasingly risky financial climate for major airlines, more than 34 million passengers are expected to pass through the airport by the end of the year, up about 3 million over last year when OIA became the busiest airport in the state.

"If 9-11 hadn't happened, we would have finished 2001 at 32 to 33 million passengers," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "Right after 9-11 there was a 20 percent reduction in passenger traffic and revenue."

The airport's spending has increased as more people have returned to Orlando for vacation and business in the four years since the nation's most severe domestic terrorist attack grounded nearly all commercial air traffic for days. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the authority was looking ahead to $300 million budgets, Jennings said.

"We are growing beyond expectation at the moment," said Authority Chairman Jeffry Fuqua. "Florida has rebounded tremendously."

Nearly 51 million tourists are expected to travel to the Orlando area this year, setting a record for the third consecutive time.

Fuqua said renewed confidence in travel by tourists and business passengers as well as the popularity of low-cost airlines such as JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines helped spur new growth.

The proposed 2006 budget, set for final approval in September, will increase by $21 million over this year to $309 million.

The aviation authority, which operates the airport, is slated to substantially increase its spending on capital projects next year by more than $5 million to replace furniture and equipment throughout the airport and at its Hyatt Hotel as well as to construct new employee offices outside the main terminal, among other projects.

Since 9-11 many major airlines have increased pressure on the airport to cut costs. Several of those, including United and Delta, are so-called signatory carriers in Orlando -- meaning they share in the authority's surpluses, but also are required to make up any budget shortfalls.

United filed for bankruptcy three years ago. Delta, historically Orlando's largest carrier, is struggling to avoid the same fate. US Airways had signatory status when it filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

In addition to assuming the risk of airport shortfalls, a majority of signatory airlines also have the power to veto capital projects at the airport. They have not yet finished voting on the 2006 proposal.

The authority has worked to increase revenue from retail and concessions to keep signatory airlines' contributions to the budget at about 25 percent.

The amount each airline is estimated to pay per passenger to operate at OIA is projected to go down by 12 cents to $4.70. According to 2004 figures from OIA, the most recent available for comparison, Orlando's per passenger rate was $5.22, Tampa's was $4.34 while Miami's was $15.36.

The number of airlines that agree to share in the burden of budget shortfalls increased to 15 on Wednesday with the addition of low-cost carrier USA 3000, which began service at the airport in May.

It signed a three-year lease that is expected to generate an extra $116,000 this year for the authority.

The Newtown Square, Pa.-based airline is attempting to distinguish itself by offering light meals on every flight as other airlines have dramatically cut back or eliminated in-flight food service. The airline also offers a "juice bar" in addition to a free light meal, beverage and complimentary headphones for radio and television entertainment.

The airline is able to keep costs down because it flies newer aircraft, said marketing coordinator Christy Ortiz.

"It keeps down the prices that some other legacy carriers would have with some of their older aircraft," she said.

USA 3000 is scheduled to add routes to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Newark out of OIA.

"Orlando is a market that we thought was a natural fit for us to go into considering we're in three other Florida markets," Ortiz said.

The airline also operates in St. Petersburg, Ft. Myers and Ft. Lauderdale.