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Losing altitude

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For seven straight years, passenger traffic has fallen at the Albuquerque International Sunport.

It seems 2015 will go in the books as the eighth.

Year-to-date figures through September show that activity at the state’s largest airport is down 4.8 percent compared to last year, setting 2015 up as the facility’s lowest traffic year since at least 1990.

Sunport passenger traffic fell from 6.7 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2014, or about 27 percent.

The passenger declines mirror fewer flying opportunities – since 2008, the Sunport has gone from a brief peak of 40 nonstop destinations to 23 and it’s seen the average number of daily departures fall by around 40 percent.

Officials had expected traffic to stabilize in 2016, but Sunport spokesman Dan Jiron said the most recent forecasts indicate that small dips could continue into next year before things level out – or even increase – in 2017.

The Sunport has $16 million in renovations planned for its ticketing and baggage claim areas set to start next spring.

The Sunport has $16 million in renovations planned for its ticketing and baggage claim areas set to start next spring.

And yet the situation might not be as bleak as the numbers suggest.

The Sunport has welcomed two new airlines since 2013. It has funding in place to cover a planned $16 million renovation of the baggage claim and ticketing spaces – a project coming just a few years after an overhaul of the airport’s post-security areas. Its service remains comparable – if not superior – to airports in similar-sized markets, according to officials. And, after a wave of flight reductions that cut Albuquerque off from some cities, most of them regional, the Sunport hasn’t lost any permanent destinations in 1½ years.

One industry analyst says the Sunport fares well in one of the most important metrics – accessibility. With direct flights to hub cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and, most recently, New York, aviation industry consultant Michael Boyd says travelers from as far away as Beijing can find a one-stop trip to the Duke City.

“That’s what’s critical and Albuquerque is at the top of the pile as far as that goes,” said Boyd, president of Colorado-based Boyd Group International, whose firm tracks activity at 175 airports around the country.

Changing landscape

Jiron says wider industry forces are largely to blame for the airport’s diminishing traffic, and the Sunport is hardly alone in its plight.

Like many medium-sized airports around the country, the Sunport has seen activity decline in recent years.

Like many medium-sized airports around the country, the Sunport has seen activity decline in recent years.

Airlines used to aim for market dominance, offering frequent flights even if they weren’t full, he said. Now they prioritize efficiency, which has led to fewer takeoffs and concentrated activity in bigger, more profitable markets.

U.S. airlines scheduled 887,084 domestic flights in July 2005, according to federal data. In July of 2015, there were 733,119.

Medium-sized airports like the Sunport seem to have felt recent shifts more acutely. Total operations at medium-sized hubs fell 42.8 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to a Federal Aviation Administration report. That’s compared to a 13.3 percent dip at large hubs and a 29.5 percent drop-off at small facilities.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport, for example, has experienced even more dramatic declines than Albuquerque, according to statistics on its website. The facility saw 5 million passengers in 2007, but 3.3 million in 2014, a 34 percent drop. Changes made by Southwest Airlines have been a major factor.

“In the case of Albuquerque, the restructuring of Southwest has had an effect on traffic, that’s the alpha and omega of it,” Boyd said.

The carrier, which accounts for 50 percent to 60 percent of the Albuquerque airport’s traffic, began trimming short-haul flights a few years ago, ending its Albuquerque service to places such as El Paso, Lubbock, Midland and Tucson.

More recently, the airline broke free of federal restrictions on how far it could fly from its Dallas home base. The Wright Amendment had forced its flights out of Dallas to make stops in surrounding states en route to farther-flung destinations, but its 2014 expiration meant the carrier could bypass Albuquerque on its way to places such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nev. The airline eliminated seven daily Sunport flights last fall.

Boyd, who once flew from Lubbock to Albuquerque on a plane he said was then bound for Phoenix and then California, said those “milk run days are over.”

Looking to diversify

LeeAnna Fresquez of Fresquez Concessions, the Sunport’s most prolific food vendor, said the traffic drop-off is concerning, but that the company has been able to weather the storm. It has made adjustments when necessary, such as extending hours at its bar and grill to better serve the late-night JetBlue flights and trying to make food at all its airport restaurants appealing enough that people make a point of stopping by before boarding. The efforts, she said, have resulted in a modest uptick in sales this year.

The Albuquerque International Sunport's lobby area features lots of natural light and regional architectural details, such as carved ceiling beams.

The Albuquerque International Sunport’s lobby area features lots of natural light and regional architectural details, such as carved ceiling beams.

“We’re not in a bad place at all, but of course we’d love to have more flights come in – a larger presence on the Southwest side or from JetBlue,” said Fresquez, the company’s executive vice president. “Hopefully, that will come.”

Local officials continue working to bolster the offerings. The Sunport used aggressive incentive packages to bring in JetBlue (2013) and Alaska Airlines (2014), and continues to focus on recruiting new carriers. The goal is to diversify so the facility isn’t so completely tied to the decisions of a single airline and to add destinations, said Jiron. He points to Boston, Austin, San Jose, Detroit and possibly some tourist hotspots in Mexico as target additions.

Jiron said there are ongoing conversations with four to six other airlines about moving into the market. The Albuquerque sales pitch includes figures about the relatively low cost of operating at the Sunport, and the building’s recent and future upgrades.

“We’re accomplishing what we’re trying to set out to do (in terms of luring new airlines), but it’s not something that happens overnight,” Jiron said. “It’s definitely a process, but we continue to work at it.”

In the meantime, the Sunport remains financially healthy, Jiron said, thanks to the refinancing of existing debt at a lower interest rate and other efficiency initiatives, such as the replacement of parking garage lights with LEDs. Its staffing levels and budget haven’t changed much during the facility’s slowdown. It has 280 full-time positions today, compared to 268 in fiscal year 2007. Its current budget is $69 million compared to $72.4 million in 2007.

It will not incur any new debt to pay for the upgrades that start next spring.

And, Jiron contends, the facility is in good shape in many other ways. Compared to similarly sized markets, he said the Sunport has fairly robust service. Today, for example, he said the Sunport has 78 scheduled departures. That’s compared to 53 in Tucson and 55 in Tulsa.

It is, however, meager compared to Austin, Texas, which he said has 169.

“As goes your economy, so goes your air service,” Jiron said. “They’re like parallel lines.”