Monday, March 16, 2009

AirTran scales back Vermont flights

Less than a year after AirTran began nonstop service from Burlington to the Washington, D.C. region, the service has been substantially curtailed to "seasonal" — as little as four months a year.

AirTran Airways said the poor economy has forced it to halt all flights from Burlington International Airport in early September. The flights to Baltimore will resume in April or May 2010, AirTran spokeswoman Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas said during the first week of March.

"We are noticing how everyone is being affected by the economy: loss of jobs, cutting back," she said. She would not disclose the percent of seats that have been sold on AirTrans' flights from Burlington.

As a seasonal destination, Burlington would have AirTran service in May, June, July, August and possibly portions of April and September, she said. AirTran has 58 destinations — three of which are seasonal, Tinsley-Douglas said.

"Basically the route just hasn't preformed to the level needed to sustain year-round service. That's why it's changed to a seasonal market. But we're definitely not pulling out of the market," Tinsley-Douglas said. The airline will continue to evaluate demand and could add more service, if needed, she noted.

Burlington International's airport director, Brian Searles, said airport officials remain in discussions with AirTran to persuade the airline to maintain year-round service in Vermont. "We are working with them to see if there is a scenario where we can avoid going seasonal at all," he said.

AirTran's planes flew 5.5% of all passengers leaving Burlington International in 2008, even though service didn't begin until late spring. Searles said it was "premature" to comment on whether the reduction in AirTran service would push prices up on other airlines.

The U.S. economy has been gripped in a recession since December 2007. "The underlying economy is skewing the outlook on travel generally," Searle said, "and I think that makes these discussions with all of our airlines even more difficult. He said he knows of no other airline that plans to reduce service.

In addition to airport officials, the Orlando-based airline was long courted by prominent Vermont politicians, including Gov. Jim Douglas and Sen. Patrick Leahy.

When AirTran's first flight arrived in Burlington last May, John Kirby, AirTran's director for strategic planning and scheduling, dismissed the idea that the Burlington route would be eliminated, should service need to be trimmed. "This is going to be a home run," he said at the time. Tinsley-Douglas said the recession has changed that calculation.

AirTran lost $273.8 million last year. Much of that loss was a result of record-high oil prices, the company said. In 2007, the discount airline reported a net income of $52.7 million.

Vermont Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing Bruce Hyde said he is disappointed to learn of the service cutbacks.

"But when I look at the number of flights that are being reduced around the country and around the world, it's not surprising that there be a little bit of a cutback in Vermont service," he said. "It's good news that they are not cutting out the Burlington market completely. And, hopefully, when business rebounds, they will add more flights."

Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said AirTran's decision "is not a reflection on Burlington or this region."

"It's simply symptomatic of the terrible shape of the national economy. We live downstream of the national economy — and we are seeing the affect of that in AirTran's decision."