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Decline In Commercial Travel: Loads Off 23 %

Tue Oct 30, 2001 8:34 am

Airline Passengers 23 Percent Fewer
By Brad Foss
AP Business Writer
Monday, Oct. 29, 2001; 6:12 p.m. EST

NEW YORK –– About 23 percent fewer people are flying compared with last year and the number of passengers returning to the skies six weeks after the terror attacks is apparently tapering off.

With just two days left in October, the industrywide load factor, or percentage of seats filled, is 64 percent, with international flights even less full than domestic ones, according to the major airlines' trade group, the Air Transport Association.

A year ago, the load factor was about 70 percent. However, since Sept. 11 carriers have reduced capacity by about 19 percent by flying fewer routes and smaller planes in response to lower demand.

The net result is that there were 2.2 million fewer passengers traveling in the last week of October than the 9.6 million people traveling a year ago, according to preliminary data from the association.

The load factor, which fell below 50 percent immediately after the attacks, was about 61 percent at the beginning of October.

"We haven't seen very much progress this month," said John Heimlich, an economist for the Washington-based trade group. "No week stands out."

After hijackers crashed four jetliners on Sept. 11, the federal government shut down the nation's entire aviation system for 48 hours. Passengers have been gradually returning to the skies ever since as the industry promises better security and discounted fares.

U.S. airlines carried fewer than 8 million passengers during the fourth week of October, according to preliminary data, compared with 7 million passengers in the first week of the month, a change of 14 percent at most.

By comparison, domestic passenger volumes grew to 6 million from 5 million, or by 20 percent, during the last two weeks of September.

But luring back customers with cheaper tickets is not necessarily helping the airlines' bottom lines, Heimlich said.

In September, the average price of a plane ticket fell 19 percent and industrywide revenues declined by 45 percent from the previous year.

Costs have come down in October thanks in part to lower fuel prices and fewer in-flight meals being served, although Heimlich said revenues for the month will be "much worse" than the 40 percent decline initially anticipated.

The number of domestic passengers so far in October is down 23 percent, while international volumes are 37 percent lower than a year ago. International load factors are typically higher than domestic ones.

The monthlong bombing of Afghanistan by the United States is a likely factor, said Heimlich, who anticipates load factors to improve in November when United Airlines reduces dozens more large planes from its fleet.