International, discount airlines push growth at region's airports

By V. Dion Haynes
Monday, September 20, 2010

Last spring, as the travel industry was struggling to emerge from a prolonged slump, Ethiopian Airlines decided to expand service at Dulles International Airport from four to seven days a week.

With members of the Washington area's rapidly growing Ethiopian community making regular treks to their homeland, the airline hoped to use the new flights to scoop up a bigger share of that business. Its move came as airport officials stepped up their efforts to attract more international flights as a way to generate more traffic and compensate for stagnating domestic travel.

The strategy is showing promise. After two years of steady declines, Dulles in July experienced its biggest increase in traffic since 2005 -- 49,000 more passengers than for the same month a year earlier.

While airline traffic has yet to rebound from the pre-9/11 days, Dulles, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall and Reagan National airports this year have switched into growth mode, capitalizing on the expansion of carriers from emerging economies around the globe and from discount airlines. Dulles is especially benefiting from moves by companies in the region to sell their goods and services in Asia, Latin America and Africa and by businesses in those locations seeking customers here.

"The United States is a mature [airlines] market and there are not significant growth opportunities like there had been in the past," said William Swelbar, research engineer at MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.

"On the international side, we have a lot of emerging economies that hold promise for new service," he added.

At BWI, expansion is driven not by the international business, but by the growing popularity of discount carriers. In what could be seen as an early harbinger of the airport's economic recovery, Southwest Airlines boosted its number of flights this year to 182, up from 163 in 2009 and 166 in 2008. The airport reported that in July it had a 4.5 percent increase in traffic from the year before and a record number of passengers.

Although Reagan operates under a cap on the number of flights, the Arlington airport in July posted a 7.2 percent year-to-year increase in cargo activity.

Around the region, there is an uptick in new routes and bigger planes in hopes passengers will follow.

Turkish Airlines will begin nonstop service at Dulles to Istanbul in November. JetBlue will begin service at Reagan to Boston, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in November. And after having switched to daily service, Ethiopian later this year will introduce a Boeing 777 jet that seats 88 more passengers in a nonstop flight that will arrive in the capital city of Addis Ababa 2 1/2 hours quicker than its present planes.


Even with the increased activity, the airlines are merely restoring a piece of the business they lost when demand plummeted in wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which forced them to slash flights and routes and, in some cases, cease service at certain airports. By 2007, all three Washington area airports began regaining some of their seat capacity, but that again fell off during the economic downturn. Seat capacity is an airline's or airport's total number of seats made available for ticketing, and analysts use it to gauge how passenger demand is rising or falling in a given period.

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