International, discount airlines push growth at region's airports

By V. Dion Haynes
Monday, September 20, 2010; 14

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.

STILL RECOVERING FROM 9/11

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.

Baltimore's seat capacity reached 13.7 million in 2009, according to airline research firm OAG Aviation Solutions, down from its peak of 14.8 million in 2001. Reagan's seat capacity last year was 12.6 million, down from a peak of 14 million in 2000. And Dulles's seat capacity was 14.7 million last year, down from its 17.9 million high point in 2005.

OAG projects that seat capacity will grow significantly at all three airports this year -- to 14.4 million at Baltimore, 13 million at Reagan and 14.9 million at Dulles.

Given the growth, airport officials here are finding the Washington market generally not a hard sell. Carriers are drawn to this area because of the stability of the government -- and the business activity it generates -- as well as the relatively low unemployment, high volume of tourists and high incomes.

"The area is really good for us ... There are tourists and businesses that travel from here to Africa," said Kagnew Asfaw, regional director of Ethiopian Airlines' U.S. and Canada operations.

"Here, we're experiencing a 25 percent [annual] growth, except last year," he added. "But 7 percent last year was still growth."

So far, the higher passenger numbers have not translated into higher hotel occupancy, which remains flat, according to Destination DC, the city's tourism marketing organization. Still, Washington's ranking by the Commerce Department as an attraction for international travelers coming to the United States rose this year to No. 7 from No. 8, the organization said.

THE INTERNATIONAL CROWD

Airport and economic development officials in the region see growth potential in the international market. Indeed, while domestic traffic was down at Dulles in 2008 and 2009, it was up both years for international travel. With the number of international passengers having grown fourfold in about 20 years, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is completing the first part of a three-phase upgrade of the international arrivals building at Dulles.

"What we do is we look at various route opportunities and we do our own analysis of what we think will make sense" for Dulles, said Mark Treadaway, the airports authority's vice president of air service planning and development. "Like in the case of Turkish [Airlines], we go and make our presentation and follow up. When the airline makes the decision it's an economically valuable route, we celebrate."

The airport's expansion of routes has been a key tool in efforts by the Greater Washington Initiative and county economic development officials to attract international corporations to the region, including Volkswagen Group of America. The number of international corporations in Fairfax County has more than doubled in 10 years to 365, most of which were looking for direct flights to their offices overseas, officials said.

"What we're selling to those companies is the ability to get in and out of the country easily, both product and personnel. If you can't do that, [they] won't come," said Gerald L. Gordon, president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. He added that the 365 companies have added 25,000 direct jobs and 75,000 indirect jobs to the region.

This year, several airlines have expanded or introduced service to the airports: OpenSkies began a nonstop flight out of Dulles to Paris. Cape Air began flights out of BWI to Hagerstown and Lancaster, Pa. United Airlines began flying out of Dulles to Accra, Ghana, and Logos, Nigeria. The airline also added Bahrain as another leg to its Dulles-to-Kuwait flight.

All three airports this year have completed major construction projects -- for instance Dulles opened its AeroTrain, an underground system that transports passengers from the main terminal to the concourses, and Reagan built a new parking garage.

Work now is focusing on infrastructure improvements.

BWI is replacing runways and the telecommunications system that operates the computers and flight boards in the terminals. In the future, the airport plans to upgrade the C, D and E terminals.

"I think the future looks very strong," said Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the airport.

"This will make it easier for [passengers] to move through security," he added. "We'll have more food and beverages and retail opportunities for them, and this will help with baggage drop-off and pickup."

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