Saturday, May 19, 2018
Business

Cutbacks in flights, passenger seats challenge TIA, other Florida airports

If airline flights are shrinking nationally, those in Florida are (pardon the phrase) on a crash diet.

Airline mergers, belt tightening and a recession that cut demand for air travel combined to contract the number of airline departures at U.S. airports by 14 percent between 2007 and 2012. The number of passenger seats offered also fell nationwide by slightly less, says a study made public Wednesday by MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.

But at most Florida airports, airline departures fell much further, typically shrinking by a quarter to a third between 2007 — near the start of the recession — and 2012, when an improving economy still struggled for solid footing. Declines in the number of passenger seats at Florida airports also dropped, but to a lesser extent.

The MIT study found Tampa International Airport saw its annual number of airline departures fall a daunting 24 percent in those six years, dropping to 74,351 from 98,212. Also, TIA's passenger seats — a key secondary measure as airlines change plane sizes — declined 18 percent in the same period to just over 10 million from 12.2 million. The recent merger of Southwest and AirTran, and the pending deal to combine US Airways and American Airlines are also leading to flight consolidations. In 2007, 13 airlines served TIA. Last year, it was 11.

TIA generates revenues from passengers and airlines, so these cuts in volume help explain the airport's ongoing mantra to find new airlines, new direct flight destinations and more passengers to funnel through the metro area.

That's why it was good news to see this week's tour of TIA's new Airside F. The $27 million renovation, aimed at international visitors, doubles the space for more security checkpoints, immigration facilities and baggage carousals.

Hardest hit by losing at least a third of departure flights among the regional Florida airports were Sarasota-Bradenton and Tallahassee, the state capital where poor air connections are legendary. On the flip side, Miami International was Florida's only airport to add both departure volume and passenger seats during the six-year period studied by MIT.

A Tampa Bay Times sampling of nine Florida airports, ranging in size from Orlando to St. Petersburg, found that the volume of departures in the Sunshine State dropped an average of 17 percent while passenger seats fell 11.5 percent from 2007 to 2012.

The MIT study of U.S. airports found that large hub airports, such as Atlanta, Chicago and New York, suffered only an average 9 percent drop in the number of departures. Medium hubs, once empowered by Southwest Airlines' expansion and its desire to find alternatives to bigger (and more expensive) airports, nationally experienced a 26 percent decline in departures. And small-hub airports sustained an overall 18 percent drop.

The bottom line is that while the number of airline flights is down at most U.S. airports, mid-sized and smaller airports took the brunt of the cutbacks. That, the MIT experts say, will make it tougher and more expensive to fly to and between smaller metro areas and could escalate an incentives war by small airports eager to maintain some modest level of airline service.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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