March 13, 2010

Fewer fliers amid turbulence

ANN S

— By . KIM

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Tuesday, November 18, 2008..Portland's Jetport is beginning to feel the effects of the economic slowdown with passenger volumes down over the past two months. Holiday travelers are expected to find more crowded conditions on fewer scheduled flights as airlines have to cut back on their schedules. Construction on the Jetport's parking garage continues and Jetport marketing manager Gregory Hughes says that more than 400 new parking spaces will be available for Thanksgiving holiday travelers.

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Tuesday, November 18, 2008..Portland's Jetport is beginning to feel the effects of the economic slowdown with passenger volumes down over the past two months. Holiday travelers are expected to find more crowded conditions on fewer scheduled flights as airlines have to cut back on their schedules.

Staff Writer

Airline passengers can expect a crowded ride around the Thanksgiving holiday this year, even though fewer people will be traveling.

Passenger traffic nationally is expected to be down 10 percent from Friday through the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, compared to the same time last year, according to the Air Transport Association of America. But because airlines have cut back on their schedules, there shouldn't be a lot of empty seats.

The trade association expects that planes on average will be 90 percent full on the busiest days: Wednesday and next Sunday and Monday. On an average day this year, planes are about 80 percent full, said Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the group.

Travelers using the Portland International Jetport can expect to ride on similarly full planes.

''Even with the current economic season, the flights are remarkably heavy,'' said Gregory Hughes, the airport's marketing manager.

The busy Thanksgiving season comes as the Portland airport is seeing its first declines in passenger traffic in many months. The airport had a 16-month string of record-breaking high passenger rates fueled by the arrival of two low-cost carriers. The streak came to an end in September, when passenger volume was down 6.7 percent. Last month, traffic was down 5.2 percent.

Nonetheless, Hughes expects the airport will end the year with overall growth.

''If you compare year-over-year over the 10 months, we're still 7.2 percent ahead of an outrageous year,'' he said.

Last month, Portland had an average of 86 daily flights, about four fewer than the same time last year.

The slowdown hit Portland later than airports elsewhere around the country.

Passenger volume at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport is down 2.9 percent for the first 10 months of the year, according to J. Brian O'Neill, the deputy airport director. Capacity for this month is down about 10 percent, to 90,202 seats a week, from last year.

Volumes had been up in the first half of the year, but the airport has seen significant decreases since then, O'Neill said.

''Heck, in this environment, I will take a .01 (percent) increase,'' he said. ''Any time I'm experiencing an increase, I'm not experiencing a decrease.''

The number of scheduled domestic and international passengers on U.S. airlines was down between March and August, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

In August, the latest month for which figures are available, volume was down 5.1 percent.

Airline capacity has shrunk by about 200,000 seats daily, or about 10 to 12 percent, since last year, according to Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, an Internet travel site.

At the same time, fares increased along with fuel prices.

Even with fewer seats to fill, the airlines expect too many empty ones in the months ahead. In recent weeks, the carriers have responded with fare sales.

Seaney said prices haven't been this low since before the summer of 2007.

He expects most of the sales to wrap up by early next week. The sales are for flights around Christmas and, in some cases, into January and February.

''I think they're worried about softness in the winter sales. Certainly, they can't be overly optimistic about next year with the economy,'' he said.

In Portland, a couple of changes are expected in time for Thanksgiving travelers.

Part of a new parking garage will open, adding more than 400 additional spaces.

Portland also will be part of the Transportation Security Administration's national rollout of ''family lanes.''

Those lanes are meant for travelers with special needs and those who are carrying medically necessary liquids, aerosols and gels in excess of the usual 3-ounce limit.

Hughes, the marketing manager, advises holiday travelers to plan on arriving at the ticket counter at least 90 minutes before their scheduled flights.

Staff writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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