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News Article - January 19, 2007

ABE traffic off 5.2%  
  Passenger traffic at Lehigh Valley International Airport in 2006 hit its lowest level in more than 10 years. The airport recorded 788,511 passengers last year, down 5.2 percent from the year before. It was the second consecutive annual drop for LVIA. In a positive note, monthly airport traffic rose for the last three months of the year. The regional airport has seen declines in passengers on several of its major airlines over the past few years, including Delta and Northwest, which are in bankruptcy. It has also lost business from several low-fare carriers that have come and gone, including Hooters Air, which ceased flying in April.

   Airport officials began 2006 by saying LVIA might hit 1 million passengers. The airport's top official, George Doughty, blamed high fuel prices for not reaching the goal. ''We did not see fuel prices doubling,'' said Doughty, the executive director of Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which operates LVIA. ''I thought the fuel price thing was over, but I had not seen nothing yet.''

   Doughty said the airport won't reach 1 million passengers this year. He and other airport officials have forecast about 900,000 passengers. Airport traffic has soared at Philadelphia International Airport since 2005 when it added Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest discount airline. At other airports across the state, traffic has been declining. Harrisburg International Airport was down 10 percent in total passengers through November. Pittsburgh International Airport was down 5 percent through November.

   LVIA has surpassed 1 million annual passengers twice since opening in 1929: in 2000 and 2004. Doughty said while the performance in 2006 was disappointing, the airport has experienced worse times. In the 12 months following September of 2001, the airport recorded 765,665 passengers. ''Looking at the last five years, while the airport has remained financially stable, passenger traffic has gone up and down, primarily because of two things the terrorist attacks and dramatic increases in fuel prices,'' Doughty said.

   The airport has about 40 daily nonstop flights to 13 destinations. Experts have said it is a prime candidate to win service from a low-cost airline. But so far the leaders in that category Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and AirTran have not begun to fly here. The airport has managed to attract Allegiant Air, a discount leisure airline based in Las Vegas. The airline completed its first full year of service at LVIA last year. It has slowly expanded service here, with flights to Orlando and St. Petersburg in Florida.

   The airline is a small discount carrier, like many of the airlines that have come and gone at LVIA in the past five years. But Allegiant went public last month, indicating it has greater cash reserves and the support of Wall Street. The stock has risen 65 percent since its initial public offering in December. By comparison, Southeast Airlines, which was the airport's No. 1 carrier in 2004, abruptly ceased operations and disappeared without filing for bankruptcy, leaving creditors such as LVIA in the lurch.

   Doughty wants Allegiant to add flights and introduce new Florida destinations such as Fort Myers. The airline's passenger count at LVIA rose more than 400 percent from December 2005 to last month. The airline runs a sound operation, Doughty said. Allegiant said last month it had net income of $10.3 million for the first nine months of 2006, up 34 percent from the year before. ''I can't argue with success,'' he said.

   Doughty said the airport is not depending on Allegiant for its success. The majority of the airport's traffic continues to come from more established carriers that cater largely to business travelers such as US Airways and Delta. The major airlines, however, added no new destinations at LVIA in 2006. The airport has been lobbying United Airlines to launch daily service to Denver from here, but after months of discussions, no decision has been made.

   LVIA was one of 49 airports that AirTran included in a poll on its Web site as part of a contest to determine new destinations. The Atlanta airline, which caters to business travelers, instead announced it would fly to other cities. Airport officials say they have been in general discussions with AirTran about service for at least a year, and have approached the airline in the past about restarting service. The airline used to fly from LVIA in the mid-1990s while it was under different management and before it filed for bankruptcy.

   Doughty is hopeful the airport will add another major airline this year and more destinations. A small charter airline will restore service to Myrtle Beach in March on a seasonal basis. The airport narrowed its passenger losses over the course of the year. In May, passenger traffic was down 16.2 percent from the year before. In December, airport traffic rose 8 percent to 66,434 passengers, and five of the airport's seven airlines reported increases in passengers.

Source - Morning Call



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