Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Sky Harbor Airport had fewer passengers in 2016
By Dawn Gilbertson
The Arizona Republic
US Airways Flight 1939, the last official flight for US Airways, departs Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for San Francisco. American Airlines will retire the brand on Saturday.
Fewer connecting passengers on American contributed to first annual decline since 2013.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport splashes a string of 2016 accomplishments across its website: Terminal 3 makeover, No. 1 ranking from a top frequent-flier website and 20 years of British Airways service.
"What a year for Sky Harbor,'' it says.
But last year wasn't great for the city-owned airport by one key measure: passenger traffic.
Figures released Monday show that the number of passengers traveling through Sky Harbor fell 1.4 percent in 2016, the first drop since 2013 and the biggest decline since 2009.
Sky Harbor counted 43,383,528 passengers in 2016, down from a record 44,006,205 in 2015, due to a sharp drop in passengers at its biggest tenant, American Airlines.
American, which has been cutting flights and shifting to smaller planes as it reshapes its hubs three years after the merger with Tempe-based US Airways, reported a nearly 7 percent decline in passengers in Phoenix, to 20.7 million.
The airline carried 1.5 million fewer passengers into and out of Phoenix, the equivalent of losing the combined passengers of Alaska, Spirit and WestJet airlines at the airport.
Still, 2016 was a busy year
Even with the decline, Sky Harbor officials point out that 2016 was the second busiest year in the airport's history. And they have repeatedly downplayed the impact of American's shrinking passenger numbers, noting that many represent connecting passengers who stop in Phoenix on their to or from other destinations.
Phoenix Aviation Director Jim Bennett told the Phoenix Aviation Advisory Board in January that local travel demand — demand for flights to and from Phoenix — remains strong.
It wasn't all bad news for Sky Harbor in 2016: discount carriers Frontier and Spirit airlines saw their passenger counts soar. Frontier, which added service to several destinations, reported a 25.6 percent increase in passengers, to nearly 667,000. Spirit carried 354,749 passengers, up 20 percent from 2015.
Watching the trend
Still, Arizona economists and other industry watchers are monitoring the trends at Sky Harbor closely given American's position there. The airline accounted for nearly 48 percent of Sky Harbor's passengers last year even with the drop in traffic. Southwest Airlines is next, at 33 percent.
Most troubling: American's passenger declines accelerated in the second half of the year. In December, American's passenger count in Phoenix was down 9.3 percent from a year ago, compared with a 5.5 percent increase at Southwest. (Overall, Southwest saw a 2.5 percent increase in passengers at Sky Harbor in 2016.)
Sky Harbor's drop in passengers also comes at a time when most major U.S. airports are reporting gains in passengers due to strong travel demand.
Atlanta, the world's busiest airport, posted a 2.64 percent increase in passengers, to 104.2 million in 2016. Chicago O'Hare saw passenger counts rise 1.3 percent, to nearly 78 million, and Los Angeles International Airport, where American has been growing significantly, saw passenger counts jump 8 percent, to a record 80 million.
American's moves are affecting at least one other airport. Its large hub in Charlotte, N.C., saw passenger traffic decline last year for the first time since 2009. The airport handled 44.4 million passengers, down 1 percent from 2015.
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, American's home base, saw 2016 passenger counts up a fraction from 2015, to 65.7 million.