The El Paso International Airport is facing a decline in passenger
traffic and additional cancellations of flights -- something that is causing
growing concern among city leaders.
Tight economic times and ongoing challenges of airline companies have caused city officials and leaders to search for ways to maintain and increase the airport's flights and passenger traffic.
The airline industry's struggles with profitability, increasing fuel costs and mergers have drastically affected small and midsize airports that depend on airlines for business, said Brent Bowen, professor and head of aviation technology at Purdue University.
The El Paso airport, with a taxpayer-funded budget of about $48 million, is not immune.
The airport's traffic is down 15 percent since 2010, said Monica Lombrana, the city's director of aviation. Lombrana also said Southwest Airlines, which operates more than half of El Paso's daily flights, plans to stop its direct flight to San Diego in the near future.
The announcement comes a few months after the airline stopped its two nonstop flights to Albuquerque.
"It's a pretty stark situation for medium-sized airports," Bowen said. "And it has pretty much everything to do with the airline industry, which those airports have little or no control over."
The airport's struggle to increase passengers and add flights coincides with a decade-long tailspin of the airline industry that's brought consolidation, bankruptcies, mergers and cuts. The New York Times reported that most airlines have struggled to turn a profit, while some airports, including Pittsburgh and St. Louis, are searching for ways to use empty space because of decreased traffic.
Passenger traffic at the El Paso airport used to hover at more than 3 million a year, even in the 2008 and 2009 recession years. But in 2012, the number dropped below 2.9 million.
So far this year, it doesn't look better. Through the first three months in 2013, the number of passengers was down 3 percent compared with the same period in 2012.
The airport also faces another uncertainty.
In October 2014, the federal Wright Amendment, which restricts flights from Dallas Love Field to certain states surrounding Texas, expires. The amendment was part of the International Transportation Act of 1979 and designed to protect and grow Dallas Forth Worth International Airport.
The amendment has meant that Southwest flights going from Dallas to many destinations such as San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles could not be direct and had to stop in a bordering state or Texas city such as El Paso.
Southwest, based in Dallas, states on its website that repealing the Wright Amendment will not necessarily reduce or add to flights at other airports. Rather, the company says passengers will have more options while cities, such as El Paso, can market itself to previously unreachable cities.
Southwest is based in Dallas, and Love Field is getting multimillion-dollar improvements.
Lombrana said that the El Paso airport is carefully monitoring the situation. She said the cancellation of the San Diego flight could be part of Southwest's plans with the end of the Wright Amendment.
Southwest spokeswoman Katie McDonald said that she could not comment on future plans and that scheduling strategy is based on demand. Southwest has 28 nonstop
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