SFO expecting busy summer season

Airport officials expect this vacation season to be busy, with summer passenger figures steadily rising back toward — but still not reaching — pre-9/11 figures.

Passenger levels dropped sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and struggled along with the entire travel industry to come back in the subsequent economic recession. In the summer months of 2000, for example, when the economy was still at a peak, a total of 11.9 million passengers passed through the airport. That number dropped to 9.3 million in 2002 and to 8.5 million in 2003 before beginning a slow climb up to 9.5 million in the summer of 2005.

Though domestic travel has remained steady over the last 12 months at SFO, international travel saw a 4 percent increase over the same time period, McCarron said.

“It’s really taking off,” McCarron said.

This Memorial Day weekend, for example, is expected to see a 9 percent growth from last year’s holiday weekend in international travel, compared to a 1.9 percent growth in domestic, Heimlich said.

McCarron expects all flights will be 90 percent or more full over the next few months, which is approximately the same as last summer. But the rising cost of fuel, among other factors, has many carriers flying fewer flights and smaller planes.

Among those carriers will be Spirit Airlines, a budget airline making its inaugural flight out of SFO on Thursday.

The local launch of the Detroit-based low-cost carrier is a coup for SFO, which has suffered a loss in the past two years of four discount airlines: Independence Air, Song, WestJet and ATA. Officials have been working to attract new discount carriers in an effort to hang on to the market share they represent, and are eagerly awaiting the planned launch of Virgin America, which is basing itself in Burlingame and at SFO.

McCarron, who said the airport is in discussions to bring other low-cost carriers on board, believes despite the figures, more airlines mean more competition and better prices for consumers.

Moreland expects that Spirit flights will beat least 80 percent full through the summer. But air travel figures show that international travel is on the rise, and so-called legacy airlines such as United have a stronghold on that market, Air Transport Association Chief Economist John Heimlich said.

Industry figures show that five legacy carriers went bankrupt between 2000 and 2005, but 20 low-cost carriers went bankrupt in the same time period, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures. Southwest is still the only low-cost carrier to remain profitable during this entire time period, thanks largely to a fuel efficiency program it started a couple of years ago, Heimlich said.

“I don’t think anyone is going to take Frontier Airlines to London Heathrow anytime soon,” Heimlich said.

tramroop@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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