The number of passengers flying through Baton Rouge Metro Airport dropped for the third straight year in 2015, though officials say the clouds have a silver lining.
Earlier this month, the airport released statistics showing the number of flights departing on time rose to 81.6 percent last year, while the number of canceled departures fell to 1.9 percent of all outgoing flights.
However, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, not all the numbers were so rosy. Total passenger arrivals and departures at Baton Rouge Metro Airport fell by about 4 percent over the previous year to 377,000 each, continuing a recent downward trend.
Airport authorities have identified local and national contributors to the decrease. A few months ago, a study found that 63 percent of the airport’s potential customers prefer to hoof it to another airfield. Usually, they use the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where the passenger count climbed by about 9 percent between 2014 and 2015.
But larger forces also are at play, said Baton Rouge Airport Assistant Director Ralph Hennessy and spokesman Jim Caldwell.
For one, airlines are replacing small, older planes with new larger models, Hennessy explained. A company may retire two 50-seater planes but put one 70-seater on a route, allowing more passengers on a flight but with fewer options, leading to a “chicken-and-egg situation” for smaller airports, Hennessy said.
The data support his explanation, as the number of flights from Baton Rouge dropped even more sharply than the number of riders between 2014 and 2015, when 8,608 flights took off from the Capital City.
According to a recent presentation given to the National Association of State Aviation Officials, airlines had to fill 71 percent of their planes to break even in the first quarter of 2015 when gas was cheaper. Baton Rouge Metro’s numbers last year held steady at 78 percent.
In addition to the tug of war between number of seats and percentage filled, other large-scale factors wind up impacting Baton Rouge, Hennessy said. New laws require that pilots have more flight time before they can be hired and more rest time once on the job, leading to a shortage of people to fly planes, especially on regional routes. Fuel costs and the increasing consolidation of the industry have raised margins and decreased competition for the past decade.
Caldwell said there is reason for hope. The industry-wide problems are affecting all airports, and Baton Rouge has ridden the storm better than most. He pointed to a study released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013 that evaluated the impact of the national recession. Between 2007 and 2012, domestic departures fell by 14 percent, according to the report. When researchers removed the top 29 airports — which didn’t include Baton Rouge or New Orleans — departures fell by 21 percent in the five-year period.
It’s hard to draw a one-to-one comparison between national and Louisiana numbers, since Hurricane Katrina is estimated to have skewed local statistics for at least four years between 2005 and 2008 when Baton Rouge Metro saw a surge in use. Caldwell says that by taking a long view of the numbers, the Baton Rouge airport appears to be outperforming its cohorts.
“BTR’s losses have been comparable to airports of our size, but if you remove the ‘Katrina’ effect (temporarily boosted BTR numbers) and measure BTR against the last year before Katrina (2004), BTR has fared much better than other airports,” Caldwell wrote in an email to The Advocate.
The airport had 638,709 total arriving and departing passengers in 2004 and 753,443 in 2015, he continued.
The airport’s consulting firm is projecting the recent skid to end in 2016 and predicts the airport will see a modest 1.3 percent rise in departures this year, Caldwell said.
One other major goal for 2016: a direct flight to Washington D.C. Hennessy, the assistant director, said Baton Rouge Metro is lobbying airlines to reconnect the state capital with the nation’s capital.
Other initiatives are smaller, but airport leaders hope those will make the airport more popular. For instance, an airport ambassadors program involves having airport staff intercede for customers when they have problems with an airline, such as trouble with baggage or help with a cancellation.
Because Baton Rouge Metro primarily caters to business travelers, officials also are looking at instituting a business loyalty program or forming other partnerships with local employers, Hennessy said. The airport officials also are going to commercial, civic and trade organizations to pitch the airport for business travelers, specifically by pointing out additional costs of booking New Orleans flights, such as gas, parking and driving time.
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