U.S. airline traffic fell in 2008 for only the fifth time since the government began tracking the data 35 years ago, as the global economy weakened and carriers slashed schedules.
Traffic, measured in miles flown by paying passengers, slid 2.3 percent for the seven biggest U.S. carriers, led by a 6.5 percent drop for United Airlines. Results pending from smaller airlines, including SkyWest Inc., won't be enough to make up the shortfall and prevent 2008 from snapping a streak of five annual gains.
Air travel likely will slump again this year because Delta Air Lines Inc. and other carriers plan to chop seating capacity by as much as 8 percent on top of their 2008 pullbacks. Traffic has fallen in back-to-back years only once, in 2001-2002, based on Transportation Department records dating to 1974.
"It's going to be another tough year for airlines, and they're all trying to figure out just how tough," Hunter Keay, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore, said last week.
Keay estimates U.S. carriers will cut about 10 percent more flying capacity in 2009, with traffic slipping by 5 percent to 10 percent.
Record jet-fuel prices in mid-2008 prompted the biggest airlines to ground more than 460 planes, slash 26,000 jobs and reduce capacity by 10 percent or more.
The drop for 2008 was confirmed Wednesday when Delta, the world's biggest carrier; Northwest Airlines, acquired by Delta last year; and US Airways Group Inc. became the last of the big carriers to report December and full-year results.
UAL Corp.'s United led December traffic declines, with a 12-percent plunge, its 16th straight monthly decline. The Chicago-based carrier cut available seats by almost 13 percent for the month.
AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the No. 2 U.S. carrier, said traffic fell 8.2 percent, a 10th consecutive monthly drop. Continental Airlines Inc. posted a 7.3 percent slide, its fourth in a row.
Combined traffic for the seven biggest carriers fell 5.2 percent for December. Delta and Southwest Airlines Co. were the only members of that group to post gains last month, up 3 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. Full-year traffic also rose for both.
U.S. air traffic hadn't fallen since 2002, the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The biggest airlines should post combined profits of about $5 billion in 2009, estimates Michael Derchin, an analyst at FTN Midwest Securities in New York.
Delta said in December that it will be "solidly profitable" in 2009.
Some industry consultants have raised questions about whether airlines may need to implement more capacity cuts in 2009.
In the month of December, global international cargo traffic plummeted by 22.6 percent compared to December 2007.
Despite offering less capacity in January, both Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Inc. last month saw their traffic decline even faster.
The airline said Thursday it sold a record-high percentage of seats in July, even though overall passenger traffic fell slightly compared with last year.