TCRA officials not optimistic about summer air travel

Hank Hayes • May 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Tri-Cities Regional Airport officials aren’t exactly expecting air travel to take off this summer.

It doesn’t take an aviation expert to figure out why.

As the Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer vacation period, airport officials sound like they’ll be happy if ridership stays on level ground with what happened last year.

From air carriers to travelers, it seems everyone has the blues from high fuel prices and a flat economy.

“With the price of oil approaching $128 a barrel (oil prices rose above $135 a barrel for the first time on Thursday, the Associated Press reported), airlines are cutting back on the number of flights they operate across the country and increasing fares and other fees to try to counter the rising cost of fuel,” said Melissa Thomas, TCRA’s director of marketing and air service development. “At (TCRA), the carriers have made some schedule adjustments for June, particularly on Saturdays and Tuesdays, which are typically less busy travel days. Fewer available seats also mean fewer discount fares.”

The Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines, said slightly fewer passengers will travel June 1 through Aug. 31 compared to the same period last year, and added that planes will be approaching 85 percent full.

What ATA doesn’t want is a repeat of what happened last year. The first eight months of 2007 accounted for the worst delays on record with 29.5 percent — a total of 1.7 million flights — being delayed or canceled. Air travel complaints at the U.S. Department of Transportation Office for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings increased by 70 percent compared with 2006.

Testimony in a recent U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee meeting indicated there is a sense of “outrage” in the public about airline delays and the treatment of consumers during those delays.

At TCRA, the airplane on-time arrival record is slightly better than the national average of about 71 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

While TCRA’s bread and butter traditionally has been offering flights to the Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit and Memphis hubs, its bright spot for air service this summer is expected to be Allegiant Air, which has entered the top tier of the nation’s low-cost carriers.

The airport’s 8 percent increase in ridership during this year’s first quarter was due to Allegiant’s flights to Florida that began in May 2007, Thomas said.

“It’s impossible to know from one day to the next where the best flight opportunities may appear, but it is particularly important now to plan flights in as far advance as possible, at least 21 days before you need to travel and stay over a Saturday night to get the best fares,” Thomas advised. “Allegiant Air is still offering some great deals to Orlando Sanford and Ft. Lauderdale.”

Aside from airfares, the cost item getting the most attention from travelers lately is the airlines’ move toward charging fees for baggage to cover additional fuel expense. BTS reports the low-cost carriers spend the largest portion of their operating expenses for fuel, while the larger network carriers spend the least.

Thomas said she hasn’t heard of any situation where the additional baggage fees have affected air travel choices.

“Now that nearly all the traditional carriers are charging fees to transport a second piece of baggage, I think people are getting used to the idea,” she said. “Allegiant charges for each piece of luggage, and that is one of the ways they can keep the ticket costs low.”

For more information go to www.triflight.com.

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