Year-over-year gains in airport traffic slip in July

The passenger numbers from Savannah/Hilton Head International certainly aren’t the most important numbers that I follow.

But the figures are interesting, and they’re clean in the sense of being valid for year-over-year comparisons. They’re also easy to find on the airport’s website.

We’re still up more than 1% in total passengers in 2011 compared to 2010, but most of the gain happened in January and February. July actually saw a decrease in enplanements from 76,128 last year to 76,031 this year — a negligible change. But the number of deplanements fell from 76,305 in July 2011 to 73,836 this year. That 3% decline could possibly be explained by random factors, but it’s not a good sign.

Deplanements for July peaked in 2005 at 102,835. That sharp decline helps explain why it’s so easy and pleasant to fly in and out of Savannah.

It’s been common to hear people explain the decline by pointing out that AirTran left a few years ago and we lack a low cost carrier. While that might have played a minor role in the decline, the numbers don’t point to it as a major cause, as I explained in a column in December 2009:

A few weeks ago, there was a fair bit of discussion in this paper about the lack of a low-cost carrier at the airport since last year’s departure of AirTran Airways.

From some quarters, the implication was that the loss of AirTran was the chief reason for this year’s declines in passengers.

Well, when we close the books on 2009, the airport will have seen about a 16 percent decline in passengers from 2008. AirTran only represented about 4 percent of the local market before it pulled its unprofitable Savannah to Atlanta route.

Because AirTran left in October 2008, November gave us the first chance to make a true year-over-year comparison.

Sure enough, we saw a much less dramatic decline than in previous months. Recall, however, that November 2008 was a particularly frightening and uncertain month – one of the worst of the recession.

In short, it seems clear that the numbers would have been down significantly this year even if AirTran had stayed.

We’ve simply experienced a deep nationwide recession and might still be in a local one. Low-cost carrier or no, there’s little reason to expect either business or leisure air travel to snap quickly back to the level of 2008.

In July 2008 there were 92,824 enplanements and 93,226 deplanements. It’s likely to be a few years before we hit those numbers again. And while I’d love to see a low cost carrier move aggressively to Savannah with multiple routes, my guess is that their concerns about weak existing demand might outweigh their desire to tap into a new market.