Omaha, Lincoln airports hold their own as other midsize airports sputter

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Posted: Thursday, February 6, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:24 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

The Omaha and Lincoln airports are holding their own at a time when many small and midsize airports are losing service and passengers.

Omaha saw about a 2 percent decrease in overall airport passenger traffic in 2013 — better than airport officials were expecting given the recent trend of airlines reducing available seats and flights at airports like those that serve the region. Lincoln's airport bucked the trend with a 5 percent increase in passengers in 2013.

Rising fuel costs, less competition in the industry fed by airline consolidation and decreased demand because of a tough economy all have forced the airlines to become more disciplined business operations and reduce scheduled flights and seats at medium and small hubs, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported last May.

But Eppley still topped 4 million passengers in 2013, a milestone it has hit every year since 2005. In 2012, the airport served about 4,127,000 passengers. This year, the number was down to about 4,042,000. Aside from a slight increase in 2010, the airport's traffic has been decreasing year over year since 2007.

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“What we found is that the MIT study (trend) kind of continued. Declines continued right through August of 2013,” said Chris Martin, Eppley's director of airline affairs and airport operations. “Then we began to see improvement in the amount of capacity. It started to pick up in September” and continued through the fourth quarter.

December's traffic numbers, which included the busy travel days after Thanksgiving, were up by about 7 percent, from about 312,200 in 2012 to roughly 334,500 passengers in 2013.

“The last quarter of the year was very positive as a result of more seats. ... The second thing that was also equally important was we had more demand from the public,” Martin said.

In Lincoln, the airport saw 283,690 passengers in 2013, up about 14,000 from 2012, with a 9 percent increase in traffic in December. Executive Director John Wood attributed the increase to more competitive airfares.

“I think we've seen the airlines narrow the fare differences between Lincoln and Omaha somewhat this year,” Wood said. “People who live in Lincoln will pick the local airport for convenience if the fare's competitive, and that's what we've seen.”

That holds true for Juanita Phillips and her husband, Tom, of Lincoln, who were headed to Las Vegas on Tuesday out of Eppley Airfield. The Phillipses said they have flown out of Lincoln a few times over the past year because the fares were cheaper, and they would use the Lincoln airport more often if it offered nonstop flights to more cities. “There's just not a lot of nonstop flights out of Lincoln that we use,” Juanita Phillips said.

Similarly, Robin Reynders and her husband, John, of Sioux City, Iowa, fly out of Omaha because it has more options when it comes to destinations and nonstop flights. The couple take about five to 10 trips a year between the two of them, and they were headed to Phoenix on Tuesday for a business trip.

The hope by airport officials and travelers is that increased traffic will signal the airlines to add more flights. Lincoln will add a nonstop Delta flight to Atlanta, a new destination — probably this fall, Wood said, although Delta has not announced when the flight will begin.

Eppley added one new carrier this year, Alaska Airlines, which now offers a daily nonstop flight to Seattle. Southwest Airlines will begin offering a nonstop Saturday flight to Los Angeles in June. Both additions could be signs the airlines are testing the waters for new destinations or increasing service out of Omaha, Martin said.

The Alaska Airlines flight appears to be doing well, he said. “Their flights are very popular and they are very pleased with what they've seen their first two months.” Other possible destinations the airline could serve from Omaha include Portland, Los Angeles and San Diego, Martin said.

Several airlines also added seasonal flights on the Saturdays after Christmas and New Year's Day. “Those are good signs. That shows, I think, a pent-up demand,” Martin said.

Omaha airport officials worked last year with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to learn more about destinations that are in high demand and the demographics of air travel. “L.A. and San Francisco are probably the two biggest cities on the chamber's Omaha business wish list,” Martin said.

Corporate pilots Keith Cutter and Colin Panitz, in Omaha on their way home to Atlanta after flying a private plane to Lincoln this week, said they think flights, both corporate and commercial, have seemed fuller. “I have seen that picking up over the last year,” Cutter said.

However, 2014 has had a rocky start because of several severe weather systems that resulted in cancellations throughout the country in January. “We're figuring for January we're going to start off somewhere between 3.5 and 5 percent down unless the other days are good,” Martin said.

Wood agreed. “I would be very surprised if any airport in the country this year shows an increase in January.”

The good news is that the airlines increased available seats in January over last year.

“The trend continues to be fewer flights but more seats because of larger aircraft,” Martin said. “We hope that the increased availability, the increased capacity, will entice more folks to travel.”

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