Decline in air passengers a sign of economic weakness (but pleasant for travelers)

I hear pretty much nothing but complaints about air travel, and sometimes I wonder whether I occupy the same world that other people do. Most of my flights are roundtrips from Savannah to other small market airports. Six or seven times in the past year I’ve flown from Savannah to Lexington, Kentucky.

Just for kicks, on my last trip I decided to time myself to see how long it takes to get from my house on 32nd St., just south of Forsyth Park in the middle of Savannah, to Savannah/Hilton Head International. I left my house in my van at 1:30 p.m. precisely, hopped on I-16, drove the speed limit, turned onto I-95, exited smoothly, parked in the far reaches of the economy lot, carried my two bags and pre-printed boarding passes to the gate, breezed through security, made the long hike past all those empty gates (talk about optimism!), stopped at Starbucks for a frappucino, and then sat down at the gate. 38 minutes from my front door to the gate. 38 minutes!

If anything, the Lexington airport is even more convenient, with even fewer flights and much less distance to walk. Only once did I get stuck in Charlotte, and that was only for a couple hours — a result of delays caused by Air Force One security measures.

So some of you people tired of air travel in major metro areas: the ease (if not the cost) of air travel is another quality-of-life factor that gives a real edge to small cities like Savannah.

Of course, part of the reason the Savannah airport is so convenient is because of the relatively low numbers of travelers. The decline has very little to do with cuts in available flights; flights have been cut due to lack of demand. Like the recent announcement that Allegiant is canceling its flight from Savannah to Fort Lauderdale. How could anyone think that would be a profitable route anyway?

Travel in and out of the Savannah airport declined dramatically during the recession and has not recovered. In fact, enplanements and deplanements were slightly lower in May than they were a year ago. The decline was in the 2-3% range, so it might not even be significant statistically, but it’s the first time since last spring that we’ve seen a clear year-over-year decline. It seems another small sign of a serious stall in the national economy.

To put it in a broader perspective, 76,856 people deplaned in Savannah in May 2011, while in May 2008 (about six months into the recession) that number was 99,442. I don’t blame the airport leadership, economic development organizations, or tourism promoters for the decline, by the way. We just got hit hard by the recession and airport numbers like so many others are still far below the pre-recession peak. You can see all the data here.

But with so much space and so few passengers, Savannah-Hilton Head is one of the most pleasant airports around.

2 comments for “Decline in air passengers a sign of economic weakness (but pleasant for travelers)

  1. Kayne Lanahan
    June 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I met someone who moved to SAV from Atlanta (who traveled non stop for business)who swears it\’s faster to drive to the Savannah airport and fly to ATL than to drive from the north Atlanta suburbs, park and get through security and to your gate at ATL!

    • bill dawers
      June 11, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      And I’ll add that it’s frequently (and ironically) cheaper to fly through Atlanta than to fly to or from it.

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