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Airport traffic sees nearly 10 pecent drop; Officials blame holiday dates

By Staff | May 28, 2008

By MATT BLUMENFELD, “mailto:mblumenfeld@breezenewspapers.com”>mblumenfeld@breezenewspapers.com

Airlines cutting flight capacity, mostly due to the sharp rise in fuel costs and a sputtering economy, has taken its toll on air travel across the country and Southwest Florida is no exception.

The Lee County Port Authority released numbers Tuesday showing passenger traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport was down 9.8 percent in April compared to the previous year. Year-to-date traffic overall is down 4.4 percent compared to 2007.

Virginia Moreland, spokeswoman for the Lee County Port Authority, said that the year-to-date traffic decrease is a reflection of an overall flight capacity decrease.

“This is not just a Southwest Florida problem, this is a U.S. domestic problem. We are fortunate that we have a very desirable location,” she said. “Every day you pick up the newspaper and you see airlines talk about reducing capacity.

Moreland believes that the April year-to-year comparison is down so sharply for 2008 because of holiday timing.

One of the key components is that Easter was in March, and last year it was in April,” she said. “That makes a big difference in how traffic in a leisure destination like Southwest Florida will flow.

Overall aircraft movement, which measures takeoffs and landings, was also down 8.6 percent at the airport.

Elmer Tabor, who owns the Hampton Inn in Cape Coral, has seen business in the downtown hotel off by 20 percent compared to last year.

I think the majority of it is the corporate travel and the business travel because not as much of it has been going on in Lee County and Cape Coral,” he said.

In his position with Riverside Bank, Tabor has seen far more teleconferencing, which he said has had a “
major impact” on the airline and hotel industries as companies send their employees on fewer business trips.

To combat the rapidly increasing price of fuel, airlines have raised ticket prices on a number of occasions over the past year. American Airlines has even gone so far as to charge passengers a $15 fee for the first checked bag.

Combined with shrinking disposable income thanks to a weakened economy and inflation of other consumer goods, hiked ticket prices are likely dampering travel plans for some Americans.

The cost of fuel for our air carrier partners is going to be difficult going forward,” said Moreland.

In a nod to those higher prices and increased fees, discount airliner JetBlue led airline traffic at Southwest Florida International, carrying 109,872 passengers in April, while fellow low fare carrier AirTran was second with 101,604 passengers using its planes to fly in and out of the Fort Myers area.

While business is down now, Tabor does not see “
doom and gloom” for the long term as the housing market has started to see increasing sales numbers.

If the fuel prices stay up we’re going to have a weak summer,” he said. “But the general economy is starting to come back here.”

Tabor is also looking forward to the summer months with an expectation that incoming foreign travelers may offset a domestic slump. He pointed out that the relative strength of the Euro compared to the dollar will make travel from places like Germany to Southwest Florida that much more attractive.

Southwest Florida International Airport is one of the 50 busiest airports in the country and served more than 8 million passengers in 2007.