It was already a bad year for Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.
Passenger counts were down. Nearly one-fifth of the airport's daily scheduled flights had vanished.
Then came the plane crash.
Blue Grass Airport, the site of a Comair crash that killed 49 people Aug. 27, is one of many regional airports nationwide that are struggling to attract more passengers in the wake of cost-cutting by financially strapped airlines.
The impact of the cost cuts so far has included fewer flights, and smaller planes with fewer seats. Such actions are a reversal from the previous few years, when many regional airports thrived after recovering from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
During 2003 and 2004, Blue Grass Airport set records for total passengers, with 1.14 million in 2003 and 1.17 million in 2004.
In 2005, though, the airport's passenger count fell to 1.09 million, down 6.5 percent from 2004's record high.
With major airlines in bankruptcy, regional airports are finding that carriers are increasingly examining the bottom line and cutting back on flights that aren't full.
"There is no cost in the airline system that is too small to merit attention," said Debby McElroy, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Regional Airline Association. "The airlines are looking at all of the costs throughout the operation to ensure they are the safest, most cost-efficient and operationally efficient they can be."
The cost pressures are evident at Blue Grass Airport, where daily scheduled flights dropped 17 percent, from 104 arrivals and departures in July 2005 to 86 this July.
More than 91,000 passengers flew to and from the airport in July, down almost 10 percent from a year earlier. For the first seven months of the year, Blue Grass Airport's total passenger count is 607,651, down 6 percent year-over-year.
The majority of the decrease in flights came from a pullback by Delta, which is in bankruptcy, said Blue Grass Airport spokesman Brian Ellestad.
Among those flights was service to the Florida cities of Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, he said.
Since 2002, major hub carriers have reduced service at 147 regional airports, according to data provided by industry consultant BACK Aviation Solutions Ã BACKaviation.com.
With the majority of major carriers in bankruptcy over the past few years, "they're only going to be in markets where they see a healthy chance to make money," said John Weber, vice president of Aviation Information Services at BACK Aviation Solutions.
The result, he said, is a "crunch on regional airports where maybe performance has been marginal at best."
"What's getting harder is the economics of being profitable on a route," Weber said.
Those profit pressures include rising fuel costs and staffing costs, which can be problematic at smaller airports, where there might not be enough flights to recover the costs of personnel, said Dick Marchi, a senior adviser with the Airports Council International North America.
Huntington airport quieter
Among the airports struggling is Tri-State Airport near Huntington, W.Va., where business had been recovering from the impact of Sept. 11 when it "gradually started going back down again," said Director Larry Salyers. "It's been a very difficult time."
He said the airport had about 110,000 passengers annually a few years ago but has dipped to 70,000 recently.
Salyers cited high ticket prices and declining flights. The airport once had 18 daily flights. It's now down to 12.
"Those (regional jets) went somewhere else where they could make more money," he said.
One of the better markets is McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville. While its number of scheduled daily flights is down slightly year-over-year, the airport recently announced it will again offer non-stop service to Tampa, and it has doubled to four the number of large jets flying to Atlanta, said David Conklin, vice president of marketing and public relations.
"I think there are some markets ... like Knoxville where they realize that the potential traffic is greater than what they're providing in seats, so they're bringing the seats back to regain that traffic or retain that traffic," he said.
The move by major carriers to expand service in selected regional markets indicates that the downturn in passenger traffic at Blue Grass Airport isn't permanent, said Michael Boyd, president of industry consultant The Boyd Group.
"The measure of success of an airport like Lexington's is where you can get to and how people can get to you, most importantly," Boyd said. "It's not how many people are wearing out the carpet."
Not worried about Lexington
In Lexington, he pointed to the addition of non-stop service to Chicago last year as a plus.
"A Paducah, I could get a little concerned. Owensboro, concerned. But a Lexington, forget it," Boyd said. "You do have Georgetown (site of a Toyota manufacturing facility) near there. And you've got all those horses and rich people."
Lexington has aimed to upgrade its facilities in an effort to lure more airlines, flights and passengers.
A $66.5 million expansion unveiled in late 2003 called for a third security checkpoint, a third baggage carousel and six additional gates.
Most recently, the airport repaved its main runway as part of a $35 million runway safety area improvement project that began in October 2003.
Boyd, Marchi and others said they don't expect the crash will have any lingering impact on Blue Grass Airport's passenger numbers.
"When it comes to next week's business ... or when you have to plan to travel for Thanksgiving, you have to do what you have to do," Weber said.
Travel agents around Lexington said they have not had any clients request their air travel plans be changed in response to the crash.
Representatives for the Louisville International Airport and the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport said they're not aware of people choosing their airports rather than Blue Grass because of the crash.
"And I hope not," said Cincinnati spokesman Ted Bushelman. "Lexington's a good airport."
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