Baton Rouge Metro Airport passenger numbers decline for third year, but... _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Welcome to Baton Rouge art at the Baton Rouge Airport Terminal Wednesday.

Baton Rouge air travel climbed in 2017, though not by enough to lure new routes to Louisiana's Capital City.

Passenger counts rose by four percent in the past year as airlines have committed larger planes to serving Baton Rouge, said Interim Director of Aviation Ralph Hennessy at the annual state of the airport address Friday morning.

Around this time last year, Hennessy hoped travelers could soon fly direct to locales such as Chicago or Washington D.C.

"We really thought we would make some inroads on D.C.," Hennessy said in an interview, adding that he's "pretty optimistic" that the airport will be able to offer service to at least one new destination in 2018.

In addition to Washington D.C. and Chicago, the airport is courting flights to other hubs like Minneapolis and Philadelphia as well as destinations for business travelers like Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey.

Airport officials have been meeting with the four large airlines — Southwest, Delta, American and United — as well as at least ten smaller regional outfits that might be able to offer limited service, Hennessy said.

Airlines are facing problems like pilot shortages, and adding a new route often means cutting a route elsewhere. Airports have to demonstrate their proposal will be more profitable than an existing route, Hennessy explained.

Nevertheless, the Baton Rouge airport is showing promising signs.

Airlines like it when flights are on average at least 80 percent full. Baton Rouge is typically in the high 70s and 80s range, even with larger craft now serving the airport, Hennessy said. Filling seats on existing flights could help the city lure more services, he continued.

He's trying to pitch new developments like the Water Campus to airlines to show that Baton Rouge is growing and ready to handle more service.

Passenger volume is expected to hit about 771,000 this year, up from 753,000 in 2016, and more people flew through the airport in 14 of the past 15 months compared to the same month a year prior.

Those who used the airport paid three percent less for tickets this year and experienced an 82 percent on-time performance rate, which is about industry standard, Hennessy reported.

On the business side, the airport is expected to take in $15.6 million in revenue this year with $12.1 million in expenses, which will help it save up for construction projects, Hennessy said. The airport doesn't receive a tax but owns much of the nearby land, which it leases out to tenants in aviation and other industries.

Hennessy called particular attention to the airport's push to work with more women and minority-owned businesses.

Last year, 22 percent of the airport's contract dollars went to disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs, which are small businesses owned by groups that have historically faced discrimination. The aviation director vowed to work with Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome on efforts to foster such programs in the city-parish.

The airport is overseen by the Metro Council, which is advised by an Airport Commission.

At their meeting on Wednesday, council members  was unable to reach a consensus on two appointments to the commission. When asked, Hennessy said airport staff wasn't involved in the decision and referred questions to the council members.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.