TUCSON — After years of gradually declining airline service, flights at Tucson International Airport dropped sharply last year, as airlines continue to reduce service nationally to mid-sized and small airports.
In the 2013 fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the total number of passengers was down about 9 percent, and available seats were down almost 10 percent, the airport’s senior director of business development and marketing, David Hatfield, told Arizona Sonora News Service. The decline in 2013 was striking compared with 2012, when the passenger count was down 3.6 percent from the previous year and the number of available seats was down 3.4 percent.
In 2012, about 3.6 million passengers departed from Tucson International. So a 9 percent drop last year was disheartening news for airport officials.
“2013 was really a rugged year for us,” Hatfield said. “We’ve really been hit by a lot of different things. It’s sort of like, we got down so low you wonder if we can go any lower.”
Nationally, traffic at mid-sized and smaller airports has been dropping as airlines consolidate and concentrate more flights into and out of large hubs and other major airports, partly as a way to control costs and more efficiently feed high-yield passengers through international connections, which produce far more revenue than short-haul domestic flights.
Airports where airlines have cut back, like Tucson, are struggling to promote their merit against these industry trends. Hatfield said customer service surveys show that 98 percent of people who used the Tucson airport in 2013 said that they liked the experience. And 93 percent even said the Transportation Security Administration security experience was good at Tucson, which is known for its friendliness.
So why would the airport be losing customers?
Airline strategy is the reason. As they merged and consolidated routes, many airlines have become far less interested in expanding market share – given that competition has been reduced through those mergers.
“Frontier pulled out of the market entirely,” Hatfield said. “Delta dropped their flights to Minneapolis over the summer but, interestingly enough, they reinstated them in October.” Southwest, the airport’s main carrier, also made cutbacks in Tucson.
In addition to losing flights, the Tucson airport must also deal with losing passengers from southern Arizona to a rival Arizona airport — Phoenix Sky Harbor International — only 120 miles away, and a fairly easy drive of less than two hours. Phoenix had over 40 million departing passengers in 2012.
“It’s a huge thing for us,” Hatfield said of the drift to Phoenix. “We know we lose about one out of every five people in the Tucson market area.”
This is mostly because of a perception of cheaper fares from Phoenix, as well as a greater selection of airlines and flights, including long-haul nonstop flights that don’t require connections in, say, Houston, Denver or Dallas.
However, Hatfield said that U.S. Department of Transportation statistics for 2013 show that the overall difference in average fares between the two airports was about $20 a ticket.
Hatfield said the airport authority plans a new marketing strategy in 2014 that will touch on this issue and others, and that new flights have already been added, including flights to Portland, Ore. “Our whole goal this year is to try to hold on to what we got and try to get some more,” he said.
And consider that long drive through the desert to – and from – Phoenix, Hatfield pointed out. “It’s one thing when you’re excited about going away,” he said. “But where it really hits you is when you’ve just come back — and then you’ve got a two-hour drive back to Tucson.”