Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Valley International Airport (KHRL) shows sharp increase in air traffic

HARLINGEN — A strong Spring Break helped push Valley International Airport to significant increases in passengers for March and a nearly 10 percent gain for the year.

March enplanements — arrivals and departures — were up 8.8 percent in the month.

Airport officials said Tuesday the best indication of the higher-than-usual Spring Break traffic numbers was reflected in the airport’s South Padre Island shuttle report, which showed a 44.8 percent increase over 2016.

For the year, the direct shuttle service to South Padre was up 26.2 percent.

“A lot of that was Sun Country is back,” said Jose Mulet, director of air service development marketing and airline ground handling. The Minnesota-based carrier resumed seasonal service at VIA in November.

“We do have people coming in for Spring Break, but we have the locals doing Holy Week leave also,” Mulet said.

“But as far as incoming, I want to say the shuttle traffic … that was substantially up,” Mulet said. “That’s the Island shuttle, so that’s definitely going to the Island, and our shuttle doesn’t stop in Port Isabel or Laguna Vista or anything.”

The weather also played a role, Mulet said. With good weather and no red tide, college students in Austin or Houston who might “shy away” from South Padre in the past had no such concerns.

“For March Spring Break we did well. We were up 8.8 percent. But if you look at our year to date, we’re up almost 10 percent, which is outstanding,” said Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation.

“Larger aircraft, mostly,” Wren said in explaining the passenger increase. “Southwest got rid of the 500s (Boeing 737-500s), and the 300s (Boeing 737-300s) are slowly going. The seat capacity and the market went up, and then United on certain flights of the week, instead of the 50-seaters, they’ve increased to the 76-seaters.”

Mulet said he was more involved with the renewed Sun Country flights compared to other carriers because he also was in charge of ground handling for the airline.

That gave him some insight into how Sun Country passengers were responding to the resurrection of service to Valley International Airport.

“When you hear from the passengers when they’re boarding, ‘We’re so glad you’re back, we’re so glad you’re back,’ and they’re getting off the airplane and the flight crew is waving them goodbye, and they’re telling them, ‘We’re so happy you’re back,’ well, you hear this over and over again,” Mulet said.

Sun Country flights to VIA occurred between November and the end of April. This year, the airline intends to start two weeks earlier.

“I’m pushing for them to extend the season for four more weeks next year,” Mulet added.

Cargo flights also showed an increase for March, with Fedex, Southwest, ABX and Kalitta Air sending out 1,836 tons of goods and taking off 2,545 for a total cargo tonnage of 4,381.

That was good for an increase of 12.8 percent over the past March, and the airport was up 16.7 percent for the year.

Overall, the year is a reversal for enplanements at Valley International Airport following a long run of decreased passenger traffic, which began in 2008.

“It’s about time,” Wren said. “It’s the first year we’ve had an increase in enplanements. Our decrease started in ’08, and last year we hit the bottom and now we’re finally coming back up.”

Original article can be found here:   http://www.brownsvilleherald.com

United, Other Airlines Warned by Lawmakers to Fix Customer Service: Airlines threatened with more regulation at House hearing after United passenger incident

The Wall Street Journal
By Susan Carey and  Doug Cameron
Updated May 2, 2017 3:07 p.m. ET


Lawmakers on Tuesday warned U.S. airlines they faced more regulation if they didn’t follow through with pledges to improve customer service following the widespread outcry over the treatment of a United Continental Holdings Inc. passenger last month.

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took broad swipes at airlines’ treatment of passengers and the impact of industry consolidation during a marathon hearing lasting more than four hours.

Lawmakers didn’t offer specific objectives airlines should reach to avoid Congress stepping in, beyond ending any forced removal of passengers because of overbooking, but called on carriers to put their houses in order.

“I don’t believe in reregulation, but Congress will not hesitate to act,” committee chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.) told the four airline representatives at the hearing. “If we don’t see meaningful improvements, I can assure you that you won’t like the outcome,” he said.

The hearing comes several days after United said it would change a number of its policies affecting customers, and after reaching a settlement for an undisclosed amount with passenger Dr. David Dao, who was injured when he was dragged off a United Express flight by Chicago aviation law-enforcement officers in April.

United Chief Executive Oscar Munoz, speaking in his first public appearance since the incident, told lawmakers that the event was “a turning point” for the airline. “Ultimately, our actions will speak louder than words,” he said.

He added that customers can expect “a constant stream” of changes, building on recently announced efforts to avoid overbooking and give staff more freedom to handle difficult situations.

Since the April 9 incident, which was captured on social media and sparked global outrage, airlines across the industry have come under scrutiny, forcing carriers to take steps to address customer dissatisfaction with policies such as involuntary bumping.

Domestic airline industry service was largely deregulated in 1978, allowing carriers to operate any route and set their own fares. But industry changes such as baggage fees and incidents such as lengthy airport tarmac delays have triggered some small moves to add back rules, as well as calls for more oversight.

Lawmakers’ questions on Tuesday ranged from airlines’ overbooking policies and fees to change flights to the size of aircraft seats, with some taking aim at the perceived lack of competition created by industry consolidation. More than 80% of domestic capacity is now in the hands of just four airlines, following megamergers since 2008.

Rep. Albio Sires (D., N.J.) asked Mr. Munoz: “Are you too big to manage your industry?”

The CEO responded that the large scale of his carrier’s network “allows freedom of choice” for consumers. Airline executives also pointed out that overbooking helped boost capacity and lower fares, responses that drew short shrift from one lawmaker.

“No low ticket price makes up for a miserable experience,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.).

Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano, after a spirited discussion about personal frustrations with the travel experience, said he thinks United and the industry have addressed the immediate situation. “But we have a problem,” he said.

Lawmakers have lined up with calls for measures such as a revamped passenger bill of rights or proposed legislation to tackle issues raised by the United incident and wider consumer concerns about crowded planes and mounting fees for checked luggage and ticket changes.

Committee members said they have asked the Government Accountability Office to probe airline customer service, including disclosures made to passengers and their contractual rights. The U.S. Department of Transportation launched a review of United’s booking policies in the wake of the incident.

Some at the hearing said they preferred self-regulation. “I don’t think the government can solve your problems,” Rep. Rodney Davis, (R., Ill.) told Mr. Munoz. “That’s something you should do for your customers.”

In addition to United, other airlines have moved to make some changes. Southwest Airlines Co. said last week that it would end overbooking by the end of June, citing the United incident for a decision to move faster to get rid of the policy. Alaska Air Group Inc. said Tuesday it may follow suit. Southwest denied boarding to more passengers on an involuntary basis last year than American, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United combined.

William McGee, representing the Consumers Union, said at the hearing that it shouldn’t take a social media event like the United incident to drive airlines to improve their customer service.

The hearing gave some airline executives a chance to defend policies like overbooking. Scott Kirby, United’s president, said it allows the company “to take care of thousands of passengers we otherwise couldn’t accommodate.”

He cited a recent example of a United plane in India that had an engine problem, leading to a flight cancellation. United put a couple hundred passengers on other airlines, and then overbooked the flight the following day by 48 customers. Twenty-three of them took compensation to voluntarily fly the next day, he said.

Joseph Sprague, Alaska’s senior vice president of external relations, agreed, saying his carrier was able to make available 675,000 seats last year that wouldn’t have otherwise been available by overbooking. Those seats were used by last-minute business travelers and for extra customers caught up in weather or operational problems. He also said this practice helps keeps fares low.

Meanwhile, Kerry Philipovitch, American’s senior vice president of customer experience, said the airline’s overbooking rates have fallen since it introduced new measures including more staff with additional powers to avoid such situations. She said 50% of its denied boarding reflect operational factors such as aircraft changes or accommodating air marshals, rather than overbooking.

Lawmakers will return to the subject Thursday when the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security plans a separate hearing on consumer protections and the state of airline travel. The witness list of five includes Mr. Kirby, United’s president, and Ginger Evans, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, whose officers were called to deal with the situation on United Express Flight 3411 last month.

Original article can be found here:  https://www.wsj.com