Passenger Traffic Down at Lehigh Valley Airport

March 8, 2006
Passenger traffic at LVIA fell nearly 18 percent last year, hitting the second-lowest level in five years.

For Lehigh Valley International Airport, 2005 was not a year officials will want to remember.

Passenger traffic at LVIA fell nearly 18 percent last year, hitting the second-lowest level in five years. Despite attracting new airlines, the airport was unable to recover from the November 2004 collapse of its one-time top airline, Southeast Airlines.

Passenger traffic dropped steeply at some of the airport's longtime carriers, including US Airways and Northwest Airlines. The airport handled 832,000 passengers in 2005, compared to more than 1 million in 2004.

LVIA ended the year on a high note, however. December was the only month in 2005 in which passenger traffic rose from the year before. Traffic was up 4.4 percent in December to 61,609 passengers, according to a monthly traffic report.

Comings and goings

The Hanover Township, Lehigh County airport added three airlines to its roster in 2005. At year's end, two of the three remained: Hooters Air, owned and run by the restaurant chain, and Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas carrier that began service last month. Both fly to popular destinations in Florida.

The airport also restored nonstop service to Boston on Continental Airlines. Boston, however, was the only new destination by the so-called legacy carriers, which include Delta Air Lines, US Airways and Northwest.

"We have seen a decline," said George Doughty, executive director of Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which operates LVIA. "Southeast was a big drop. We were able to backfill a little bit of that."

LVIA is in a "holding pattern," he said. Given market conditions and the airport's proximity to larger airports, LVIA does not expect to gain much service.

LVIA's struggles happened in a year when worldwide air traffic rose 5.5 percent to surpass 4 billion passengers, according to Airports Council International.

Low-cost lift

"The impact of low-cost carrier traffic has helped maintain steady industry growth despite the stubbornly high cost of fuel," said Paul Behnke, director of economics for the international association.

LVIA is the fourth-busiest airport for passenger traffic in Pennsylvania, behind Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

It ranked No. 118 out of the nation's nearly 2,000 airports in 2004, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Statistics for 2005 are not yet available.

Doughty has high hopes for low-cost carrier Allegiant. It's a profitable company that is not losing money on its LVIA operations. Not every airline that has flown at LVIA in recent years can make that claim. Doughty hopes Allegiant will start service to other Florida destinations or to Las Vegas.

The airport has about 45 daily nonstop flights to 14 destinations. Experts have said it is a prime candidate to win service from a low-cost airline. But so far, the leaders in that category -- Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and AirTran -- have not begun to fly there. The corporate predecessor of AirTran flew out of LVIA from 1996 to 1998.

"Everyone says this is a tremendous market," Doughty said. "They don't understand why airlines don't realize it."

Business class

Most LVIA flights are aimed at the business, rather than the leisure traveler. Daily nonstops to cities such as Cleveland, Charlotte, N.C., and Detroit have remained largely unchanged in recent years despite consolidations and schedule cuts by the large airlines.

Airport officials say that could change in 2006 as fuel costs continue to hurt airlines.

LVIA reached 1 million passengers in 2004, largely because of the popularity of Southeast's flights to Orlando and other Florida cities. The small, low-fare airline frequently accounted for one-quarter of LVIA's monthly traffic.

Southeast abruptly stopped flying at the end of 2004, citing rising fuel costs. TransMeridian Airlines, which began service at LVIA in February 2004, took on some of Southeast's flights. It stopped flying in September. Hooters and Allegiant Air have picked up some of the slack.

Doughty hopes the airport can once again reach 1 million passengers this year. He also hopes to add nonstop service to Fort Myers, Fla., and Las Vegas.

Doughty said fuel will be the single-most important factor in air traffic this year. If fuel costs remain high, the airport does not expect significant expansion by existing carriers or new service from another airline.

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