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Skies turn quiet as flights sag with demand

Maybe you can't fly there from here anymore. Or the flight you always used to catch has disappeared. Welcome to the world of the amazing shrinking airlines.

Carriers started cutting schedules about a year ago as oil prices topped $100 a barrel. Their strategy was simple: Putting fewer seats up for sale should drive up ticket prices, if demand remained steady. A series of incremental fare increases and new fees followed.

But as the oil crisis disappeared, the economic crisis roared in. The top 10 U.S. airlines just reported that in November they flew 11.5 percent fewer passengers than a year earlier. In short, travelers jittery over their finances stopped flying faster than airlines were grounding planes.

Now, carriers are taking another whack at their fleets. Delta Air Lines will slash domestic capacity as much as 10 percent in 2009. Southwest, a perennial fast grower, on Tuesday cut 32 round-trip flights (a net loss of 19 with new flights), including four at Tampa International, starting in May.

'They're not seeing demand come back," airport director Louis Miller said. "People just aren't flying." Scheduled capacity, measured by how many seats airlines plan to fly in and out of Tampa International, is down 13 percent in the first four months of 2009 from a year earlier.

The airport lost nonstop service to four small cities: Gainesville, Naples, Sarasota and Newburgh, N.Y. AirTran Airways will stop flying to Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., starting Jan. 5, after the MGM Mirage casino discontinued subsidizing the flights.

Airlines trimmed frequencies to 10 destinations from Tampa since September. There's no competition for Continental Connection flights to Tallahassee and Pensacola. Southwest will cut back to one round-trip flight daily connecting Tampa with Indianapolis and Hartford, Conn.

Tampa International's only daily nonstop to Los Angeles will stay, but with a smaller jet. Delta shifted the route to merger partner Northwest Airlines in the first week of February.

Northwest's Airbus A319 has 36 fewer coach seats than the Boeing 737-800 Delta now flies. Bradley Lloyd of Wesley Chapel, who takes the flight about once a month, will miss the leather seats and power plugs on Delta's 737.

"But if it's that or lose the nonstop and connect in Atlanta," he said, "give me the A319."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Skies turn quiet as flights sag with demand 12/09/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:45pm]
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