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Sunport traffic plunges

Travelers make their way to security at the Albuquerque International Sunport, March 27, 2013, in Albuquerque, N.M. The airport has been experiencing a decline in passengers since 2007. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
Travelers make their way to security at the Albuquerque International Sunport, March 27, 2013, in Albuquerque, N.M. The airport has been experiencing a decline in passengers since 2007. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
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JetBlue debuts in Albuquerque next month, giving travelers a daily, nonstop flight between the Duke City and New York City.

But that’s about the only sunny news coming out of the Albuquerque International Sunport these days.

Passenger traffic at the state’s largest airport has declined each of the last five years with a 19.4-percent dip from 2007 to 2012. The Sunport has also seen a steep decline in the number of daily departures and has lost non-stop service to a dozen destinations since 2008.

This year isn’t looking much better — year-to-date passenger numbers are 12.1 percent lower than the same period in 2012, the kind of drop officials say hasn’t been seen since the aftermath of 9/11.

Airport officials cite industry changes for some of the passenger losses. Airlines have cut flights or consolidated operations at larger hub airports in the name of efficiency.

But officials lay most of the blame on a lagging economy, and they don’t expect things to turn around quickly.

City Aviation Director Jim Hinde said the department is forecasting continued decline at the Sunport — although not as precipitous as it has been — until 2016.

“It’s going to be a long time before we ever hit that (2007) peak again,” he said.

Steady descent

At its peak in 2007, a total of 6.7 million passengers went through the Sunport. That number has slipped every year since, falling to 5.4 million in 2012.

“Businesses and individuals just aren’t traveling as much,” said Sunport spokesman Daniel Jiron, citing cuts in federal government-related travel as one of several factors.

Sandia National Laboratories — one of the area’s largest employers — has reduced its employee air travel by an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent in the first three months of 2013 compared to 2012, according to spokesman Jim Danneskiold.

Nationwide, however, the numbers are trending upward. Domestic air travel aboard U.S. airlines fell in 2008 and 2009 but has charted growth each of the last three years, according to federal transportation statistics.

Hinde said the discrepancy makes sense given that Albuquerque is often slow to feel the impact of national economic swings.

But Hinde said Albuquerque is also somewhat different in that it has been particularly hard hit by declines in short-haul travel.

Escalating airfare prices have prompted more travelers to drive, he said. He points to the airport’s rental car business as proof: While air traffic has fallen for several consecutive years, rental car activity at the Sunport has suffered no such slump.

“It’s more affordable to drive than it is to fly,” he said.

Hotel occupancy rates seem to tell a similar tale. Tania Armenta of the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau said hotel business dropped early in the recession but has made gains in the years since.

She said more hotel guests without more airport traffic suggests people are increasingly traveling by car.

With fewer people flying short distances, airlines have stopped making those trips.

Last summer, Southwest Airlines — which is responsible for about 62 percent of the Sunport’s business — cut service from Albuquerque to Midland and to Lubbock. It recently ended trips to El Paso and will stop flying between Albuquerque and Tucson in June.

Losing sites

In 2008, the Sunport had non-stop service to 40 destinations, including flights no longer offered by ExpressJet. That number is now 28, Jiron said.

The frequency of flights has also dropped dramatically. In fiscal 2008, the Sunport averaged 133 airline departures a day. The number fell to 99 last year. The expected average for the current fiscal year is 87.

Nationwide, the number of domestic flights has dropped each of the past five years, according to federal numbers. Jiron explains it as a shift in the overall airline industry, where efficiency has become more important than market domination.

“Rather than having 10 flights to a city that are 60 percent full, they would rather reduce the frequency and have the flight 90 percent full,” he said.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said the airline frequently changes its routes and schedules based on demand, time of year and where the most profit can be made. While the carrier was built on short-haul travel, she said there is increasing demand for nonstop flights to more distant locations.

In April last year, Southwest had 55 daily departures from the Sunport. This April, there will be 48.

Though the carrier has ended service from Albuquerque to several regional cities, Agnew said it recently reintroduced routes to Orlando and Portland, Ore. Next month, Southwest will increase the number of direct flights from Albuquerque to Baltimore, Oakland and San Diego.

She compared the carrier’s allocation of aircraft to putting a big puzzle together.

“We’re really just trying to beat the cost pressures and figuring out where we’ll make the best profit and yet still provide the best experience and best availability for our customers,” she said.

Looking ahead

The news isn’t all bad. JetBlue enters the Albuquerque market April 22 with a daily, nonstop flight between the Sunport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Jiron said Sunport officials are actively working to lure more airlines with incentive packages, such as temporarily waiving rent or landing fees. To defray startup costs for carriers new to the Sunport, the airport might implement a common-use system where multiple airlines can share rented space at counters and gates.

“We need to create some competition,” Hinde said.

The airport — which is self-supporting with revenue from airline leases, on-site vendor fees and parking — has managed to weather the passenger losses and remains in solid financial shape, Jiron said, thanks in part to cost cutting.

And the Sunport’s declining traffic hasn’t significantly dented leisure travel to New Mexico, according to the state tourism department.

“While it is a concern that airport traffic has been declining, so far, we have not seen an impact on our leisure market visitors to New Mexico,” Tourism Department spokeswoman Veronica Valencia said in an email.

“Most of the visitors — 84 percent — travel here by their own vehicle or by bus or train.”
— This article appeared on page A01 of the Albuquerque Journal

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