Down Economies and Airports

The airline industry earlier this week was beaming, as a new survey gave it its highest customer service numbers in 4 years.  But with the economy still struggling to make a comeback, airports may need to readjust their plans as demand and dollars are dipping.  KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer reports.

TG:  When the economy slows, the effect on air travel is summed up pretty simply.

Julie Rodriguez:  “Fewer people are flying.”

TG:  Julie Rodriguez is a spokeswoman for Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, one of the country’s busiest in terms of passenger numbers.  Earlier this year, the airport’s busy rating dropped, and it announced a series of cuts to save money.

Rodriguez:  “Under normal circumstances, we would increase our budget year to year.  This year it’s going to be flat.  As a result we’re going to make some cuts.”

TG:  Sky Harbor is run by the still cash-strapped city of Phoenix , but Rodriguez says the airport is paid for by the people who use it, with taxes and fees tacked onto ticket fares.  Most the cuts come through small changes, like using vehicles or computers longer, or cutting the frequency of shuttles running between terminals.  But one big project is still going ahead: building an automated tram connecting the airport with Phoenix light rail.  That’s scheduled for completion in 2013, though the federal government may speed that process along.

Rodriguez: “If federal stimulus money comes in we’re ready to expand that project so that the train brings people farther into the airport sooner.”

TG:  Without stimulus money, the airport may have to scale back its plans.

Alan Bender:  “There’re a lot of things an airport can’t do, because the airport is a function of the economy, so if the city is vibrant, so can the airport.”

TG:  Alan Bender is a professor with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University , specializing in airlines and airports.

Bender:  “You could probably count on one hand the number of airports that haven’t experiences the the passenger declines Sky Harbor has—it’s everywhere.  So airlines are in survival mode, and in the case of Sky Harbor, the original high cost carriers like United and American have to go head to head with US Airways and Southwest—Southwest being the biggest low-cost carrier in the world, and why bang your head against the wall?”

TG:  Bender says Sky Harbor is fairing pretty well compared to other airports, despite competitiveness in the air travel industry.  But he says all airports would stand to benefit greatly from better public transit systems, and more international flights.  Julie Rodriguez with Sky Harbor agrees,   but says the air industry still needs time to recover before major expansions will take place.

Rodriguez:  “The automated train is going forward, but as far as any new buildings and other major projects, we’ll need to see demand for those facilities.  We anticipate a modest recovery (of the industry) in Summer of ’10, and conditions we saw prior to this economic downturn in 2011.”

TG:  Rodriguez says Sky Harbor will continue its expansion in step with customer demand, and light rail has already been a pleasant success for the airport.  Officials expected 650 people a day to use light rail to connect to airport shuttles, and right away saw 800 people a day.  Whether demand warrants further investment remains to be seen.

For KJZZ I’m Tony Ganzer.

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