If you want to know how the region's travel and tourism sector is doing, just look up. Air traffic through the three major airports in the region gives a good idea of how many people are flying into and out of Washington.

In March, 4.83 million passengers flew into or out of Reagan National Airport, Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International. That's almost the same number reached at the peak of local travel, March 2001, when 4.84 million passengers came through the airports. And it's up sharply, about 20 percent, over March 2003, when the Iraq war was beginning and travel through Washington airports was its lowest in recent history.

The sharpest gain in passengers this March was at Dulles, which had 370,000 more passengers in March than in the same month a year earlier.

Higher passenger counts are good news for hotels, rental car agencies, tourist attractions and the airports. The higher numbers of visitors appear to be behind rising hotel occupancy rates and a Mall crowded with tourists.

The outlook is more ambiguous, though, for the airlines actually flying all those extra passengers. At BWI, for example, much of the gain was from a rising number of Southwest Airlines passengers; they accounted for 42 percent of passengers in March 2002 compared with 47 percent this year. The rising popularity of low-fare airlines such as Southwest at BWI, JetBlue at Dulles and the soon-to-launch Independence Air, also at Dulles, continues to put pressure on traditional Washington area travel powerhouses U.S. Airways and United Airlines.

-- Neil Irwin