Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 was a good year for passenger traffic at Norfolk International Airport

Norfolk International Airport is on an 18-month streak of year-over-year passenger growth, largely thanks to more flights and greater seat availability.

The airport had nearly 3 million passengers through November, compared with 2.8 million through the same time in 2015, a 5.9 percent increase.

But will the trend continue in 2017?

"It's hard to say what will happen," said Charlie Braden, director of market development for the airport. "We focus just as much on retaining what service we have as trying to attract new service."

For now, airport officials will enjoy the mini-bump in traffic after a precipitous drop because of federal budget cuts known as sequestration and a rough economy. Passenger volume fell 21 percent between 2005 and 2015, a trend mirrored at other medium-hub airports.

For the past decade, airlines have eschewed direct flights, increasingly relying on a spoke-and-hub system that sends passengers to a major hub like Chicago, Atlanta or Charlotte en route to their final destination.

That model has hurt airports like Norfolk. There are also fewer airlines and fewer small planes that facilitate lower-volume direct routes.

The recent uptick in traffic began in June 2015. Seat availability out of Norfolk has increased nearly 11 percent since then.

Delta, United, Southwest and American airlines all added more service from Norfolk this year, including seasonal routes to Denver, Tampa and Minneapolis. They also added more frequent flights to destinations such as Baltimore, New York and Chicago.

Passengers have filled more than half of that new available capacity. 

But Braden is realistic about 2017.

"We’re feeling good," he said, "but we don't see that same double-digit percent increase in capacity (happening in 2017)."

Most airline observers are predicting conservative growth systemwide, Braden said  – likely less than 1 percent.

Of course, the other unknown variable is what a Trump administration could do for local air travel.

Will increased defense spending and no threats of sequestration for the military mean more air travel into and out of Norfolk?

"That always gives us a shot in the arm," Braden said. 

Richmond International Airport – the nearest comparable airport to Norfolk – has seen year-over-year passenger growth in 31 of the past 33 months.

November passenger traffic there tallied 301,305, compared with Norfolk's 266,639.

Richmond had 3.3 million passengers so far this year, compared to Norfolk's 3 million.

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