Jan 24, 2015
By Richard Webner
The check-in counters at Jacksonville International Airport have illustrated the turmoil in the airline industry over the past decade.
When Delta Air Lines fused with Northwest Airlines in 2008, so did their counters. Same with United Airlines and Continental Airlines, which merged in 2010, and Southwest Airlines and AirTran, in 2012. Some airlines left when they cut flights to Jacksonville, and a newborn airline, Silver Airways, has moved in.
As the airport’s check-in area has been transformed, so has its air service. Passenger traffic at Jacksonville International is still below where it was before the recession, despite a gain in the past year. Like many other medium-size airports, it was hit by a whirlwind of economic forces in recent years, including the recession, the high cost of oil and the consolidation of airlines, which has lost it some flights and thinned its crowds of passengers.
During the recession, passenger traffic at Jacksonville International fell from 6.3 million in 2007 to 5.6 million in 2009, according to data from the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, a government agency that owns and manages the airport. And it has dropped more since then: In 2014, 5.3 million passengers passed through its terminal.
The airport has added several new flights in the past decade, including ones to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati that are set to begin in February and another to Pensacola that will take off in March. But it has lost routes to Cleveland; Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Norfolk, Va.; and Indianapolis, and others have become less frequent. In December, the airport averaged 90 departures per day, down from 96 during that month in 2010 and 120 in 2007.
But Jacksonville International hasn’t been hurt as badly as many other medium-size airports, according to FAA data, airport officials and analysts of the aviation industry.
“Jacksonville doesn’t seem that bad,” said Sarah Stock, who analyzes the aviation industry for ICF International, a consulting firm. “They’re down a little bit, but not nearly as bad as some other airports of their size.”
About three years ago, Jacksonville International began offering incentives to airlines to entice them to bring more flights to the airport, said Steve Grossman, executive director of the aviation authority. When an airline adds a flight, it receives money to market the route and a waiver of fees it would otherwise pay to the airport. Last year, incentives cost the aviation authority about $600,000.
Incentives have become common among airports competing for new flights. Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and even the behemoth Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport have their own programs.
“Airlines are looking to serve markets that will make them the most money. They don’t really care what city it’s in, they just want to make the most money,” Grossman said. “If you don’t offer those, and other airports do, it will work against you.”
Incentives aren’t the only tool at the airport’s disposal. Every year, it publicizes its nonstop flights on billboards and in print and radio ads in an attempt to attract passengers. Airport leaders also meet with major airlines to persuade them to add flights. They’ve been pushing for routes to Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco; a West Coast flight is “the key,” Grossman said.
In its competition with other airports, Jacksonville International has advantages and disadvantages, analysts said. It has plenty of business passengers — “business traffic is the staple of our airport,” Grossman said — but fewer tourists than many other major Florida airports.
That can be a curse and a blessing. Grossman pointed out that Jacksonville International isn’t hurt as badly when an economic slowdown causes Americans to forgo vacations.
But the lack of tourists means that Jacksonville International has fewer routes — and higher fares — than cities like Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, a trade publication. In the second quarter of 2014, Jacksonville’s average fare was $389, Orlando’s was $309 and Fort Lauderdale’s was $300, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Jacksonville is kind of caught in between — it doesn’t have that international marketing cache in terms of a destination, but it’s not a big originating market,” Kaplan said, referring to the size of its population.
Because Jacksonville isn’t a hub, it has fewer routes but a wider range of airlines than a medium-size hub would have, Stock said. The airport also benefits from being relatively far from competing airports. Some Jacksonville residents will drive two hours or more to Orlando to board nonstop international flights, but the numbers are fewer than in a part of the country with a higher density of airports, such as the Boston area, she said.
“One of the things that impacts small and medium hub airports is, ‘What are the alternative airports?’ With Jacksonville, the way it’s placed, it’s hard to leak to too many other airports,” she said.
A STORMY TIME
The economic malaise that followed the recession is partly to blame for the decline in passenger traffic at Jacksonville International in recent years, analysts said. A large part of the decline was caused by mergers that have rocked the airline industry in recent years.
When the airlines consolidated and eliminated some of their hubs, many of their routes became obsolete, Kaplan said. That’s why Jacksonville lost its route to Memphis after the merger of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines in 2008, and its route to Cleveland after the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines in 2010, he said.
“In a more fragmented airline industry, those Cleveland and Memphis flights were necessary because those airlines, which no longer exist, needed flights to their hubs to connect passengers onward,” he said.
“Once Delta and Northwest merged, all of a sudden Delta doesn’t really need those Memphis flights anymore.”
Between 2010 and 2013, the number of passengers boarding planes at Jacksonville International fell by 7.5 percent. But many other mid-size airports saw declines: 4.7 percent in Cleveland, 32 percent in Milwaukee, 29 percent in Cincinnati, 3.9 percent in West Palm Beach and 14.9 percent in Tucson, according to FAA data.
“Obviously, any time your passenger traffic goes down it’s a concern, but it didn’t reflect anything specific to Jacksonville,” Grossman said.
Some data suggests that Jacksonville airport is on an upswing. From 2013 to 2014, the airport’s passenger traffic rose from 5.1 million to almost 5.3 million, according to data from the aviation authority. It averaged 90 departures per day in December, up from 83 during that month in 2013.
The recovering economy has helped turn things around for airports like Jacksonville International, analysts said. If the economy keeps improving, and the price of oil stays low, airlines could continue to add flights.
“It’s not going to be all of a sudden all this crazy new service, but it would be putting back the marginal flights that have been trimmed,” Kaplan said.
Jacksonville International has a long-standing plan to add a new wing, “Concourse B.” A model near one of the airport’s food courts shows it branching out between Concourse A and Concourse C, with 15 bridges to connect planes to their gates. The plan will move forward if the airport needs more capacity, spokeswoman Debbie Jones said.
For his part, Grossman is optimistic about getting flights to the West Coast, as well as routes to Central America and the Caribbean. He’s also talking with airlines about bringing back routes to Birmingham and Norfolk.
“And who knows? With the opening in Cuba, we’ll see,” he said.
Richard Webner: 904-359-4370