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Air service up locally, dips in US

Fliers, departures rise in city

A government report shows a decline in available flights, but Fort Wayne International Airport boss Scott Hinderman can hold his head up.

The Summit City travel hub has had four consecutive years in which passenger counts increased. Officials said the airport also had a 5 percent increase in the number of departures, which rose to 298,661 in 2013, up from 284,465 departures the previous year.

“We have grown,” said Hinderman, executive director. “We did experience a drop in 2008 and 2009 during the recession, but we’re back to 2007 levels.”

Not everyone can say that.

A report Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office said service to communities of all sizes is declining, but especially to small- and medium-size airports. There are fewer flights and fewer airplane seats available than there were seven years ago, the report said.

Smaller destinations were particularly affected, with flights down as much as 24 percent and seats down as much as 18 percent since 2007. Flights have also declined 9 percent and seats 7 percent at large airports.

“A big reason for that, honestly, is a lack of flight crews,” Hinderman said. “The lack of pilots is only going to grow. It is a true problem.”

The Aviation Association of Indiana blames the shortage of pilots on training and fuel costs, and baby boomers retiring from the cockpit. The state group, however, said the industry’s economic impact is more than $14 billion annually, providing nearly 70,000 jobs and $4.1 billion in payroll.

Andi Montgomery, president of Aviation Association, said part of the problem with commercial flying is it is based on an out-of-date system.

“That’s why you’re seeing all of these mergers,” she said. “The price of fuel is very expensive and other associated costs have (carriers) looking to make the most of their money.”

And in many instances it means eliminating flights to smaller hubs in favor of larger ones with more traffic, Montgomery said.

“They can focus on the routes that make the most money,” she said. “They’re trying to cut costs to the bare bone. There was a time when you’d get a meal during a flight, but now you’d be lucky to get a Coke.”

The dilemma for small- and mid-size airports is trying to convince carriers that enough business and recreational traffic exists to merit stopovers.

“There is a market for these airports,” Montgomery said. “Everybody can’t just drive to Chicago for a flight.”

Fort Wayne International Airport officials are continuing discussions with carriers to increase business at the hub. In November, a business travelers’ online survey showed New York and Washington, D.C., as the most desired destinations.

There were 353 participants in the poll, which was developed by the Regional Air Service Committee and distributed in 11 northeast Indiana counties. The airport offers nonstop daily flights to Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth. The major carriers are American, Delta and United.

Nationally, the Government Accountability Office report showed only government-subsidized air service to rural communities increasing, and that’s largely a reflection of congressional efforts to prevent some small airports from losing commercial service entirely. The number of flights serving airports in the federal Essential Air Service program has increased nearly 20 percent, and the number of seats has risen almost 8 percent since 2007.

Of the 160 airports served by that program, 43 are in Alaska.

Airline mergers and high fuel prices are part of the reason. Jet fuel costs more than quadrupled from 2002 through 2012. Fuel costs now exceed labor costs as airlines’ single largest expense, the GAO report said.

Major air carriers have also steered away from using the types of planes that serve smaller communities, regional airliners that seat from 19 to 100 passengers. Those planes are 40 percent to 60 percent less fuel-efficient on a per-passenger basis than larger planes used at big airports, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study the report cites.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.