Island Commercial Flights Dip; Airport Business Still Thrives

By ALEXIS TONTI

Although airline passenger traffic on the Island is down more than 10 per cent from last year, the Martha's Vineyard Airport continues to do strong business headlined by continued growth in general aviation.

Airport manager Bill Weibrecht said the travel slump has not negatively impacted the airport, where income continues to exceed expenses. He added that the timing of the downturn comes as no surprise.

"The industry is cyclical," he said. "And every time it peaks, it peaks higher than before."

In 1981, he said, the air traffic controllers' strike caused problems industrywide. In 1991 came the Gulf War, and in 2001 the Sept. 11 tragedies.

Air traffic on the Island last peaked in 1999, when the airport moved more 0people than it had since beginning commercial service in the early 1950s. In that year the airport reported about 73,000 enplanements (an enplanement counts each passenger boarding a commercial plane). In 2002, there were 61,409.

This year all three of the airport's carriers are coping with passenger apathy. Hyannis-based Cape Air last week announced it will cancel its Providence run after Oct. 28. The Vineyard's primary carrier also has begun its lean winter schedule early. At this time of year the airline usually sends seven or eight flights to Boston a day. Instead there are four flights daily, with an additional one Friday.

A look at the airlines' preliminary enplanement numbers, released by the airport this week, also tell the story.

Cape Air saw a 5 per cent decline in passenger traffic from June through August, the Island's peak travel period. For the year to date through September, traffic is down an overall 8 per cent from 2002.

Boston-Maine Airways, an affiliate of Pan Am, saw a 10 per cent decline during the summer season. And US Airways Express had an even bigger drop - about 18 per cent.

On the other side of the terminal, however, business is flourishing. Although the airport does not track passengers who leave on private flights, fuel sales point to the overall trend toward general aviation. Those numbers are up for the fifth year in a row, and have increased 3 per cent from 2002.

Charter aircraft, private aircraft and, most recently, fractional ownership are all part of the mix. Fractional ownership amounts to buying a time share of a private aircraft.

Any extra revenue collected during the year goes toward capital improvements either to the airport or the business park, said Mr. Weibrecht. The airport has made no staff cutbacks other than the usual changes that come with the seasonal shift.

Cape Air spokesman Michelle Haynes said the airline is financially sound, and its schedule simply reflects a drop in demand. "The passengers are not there," Ms. Haynes said this week. "Sept. 11 really affected people's willingness to fly. The economy is down, people are not traveling. It's one big domino."

Mr. Weibrecht attributed the low numbers to changes within the airlines. He said they have been delaying publication of their local schedules, which turns passengers off to flying to the Island.

"The later you publish a schedule, the less people you have on your flights," said Mr. Weibrecht. "People who get on the Internet, who try to plan their vacation. They have two destinations in mind. But if they can't get to one, that's it. Even if the schedule comes out a day later. They don't check again."

He said US Airways in particular has been slow to set its schedule for the past two years.

In 2001 US Airways was ready to make the leap to year-round service on the Island, with one a day to New York planned through the winter. After Sept. 11, the airline canceled its off-season flights and hasn't floated the idea since.

The schedule for the service that remains, from June through early September, has come later every year - a delay Mr. Weibrecht said stems from the complicated shuffling of the airline's main jets and regional carriers.

On the Vineyard, the US Airways Express service is operated by Colgan Air, a regional airline with headquarters in Manassas, Va.

Different markets for the same airline often compete with each other. A company must consider them all - where they can turn the most profit and where they need a particular type of airplane - when it comes to scheduling.

For example, if an airline pulls one of its main line planes - meaning the larger jets - out of Rochester, it will compensate with regional service to the area. The resulting shift might involve pulling a smaller plane from the Island route to fly instead to New York.

By waiting to publish a schedule, airlines give themselves a larger window to factor plane availability and to respond competitively to fluctuating air fares.

US Airways emerged from bankruptcy protection in March, and on Tuesday reported a third-quarter loss of $90 million. The company president and chief executive said the airline continues to wrestle with strong competition from low-cost competitors.

Jet Blue, which operates on a low-cost, low-fare philosophy, will begin service to Logan Airport on Jan. 1.

Mr. Weibrecht said the new service might affect the local market: Islanders may be more willing to hop to Boston, where they can ultimately catch a less expensive flight to their final destination.

A US Air spokesman said there are no plans to change service to the Island.