US election not boosting traffic at Washington’s two major airports; United adding Dubai this winter, JetBlue heads south

Logo: MetropolitanAs the race intensifies to determine who will be the next incumbent in the White House air travel at the capital’s two major airports has been struggling in 2008 to reach the levels of last year. Traffic at the constrained ‘downtown’ Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) reached a new peak in 2007 with almost 19 million passengers. Demand at the ‘out of town’ Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), which opened in 1962 with its iconic Eero Saarinen designed terminal building, has been more erratic over the years. Despite its greater size and scope for expansion, passenger numbers at IAD only surpassed those at DCA as recently as 1999.

Chart: Washington airports 1996-2007
Source: MWAA
Image: Independance air
Not enough people joined Independence Air’s “iCLUB” to give it a chance to compete long-term against United and others at IAD.

Independence Air’s brief existence helped boost IAD traffic by 60%

The surge in growth at IAD in 2004 was a combination of a return to pre-‘9/11′ demand levels and also the emergence of Independence Air which had previously been operating profitably as Atlantic Coast Airlines on behalf of United Express. Operating a mix of CRJs and A319s/A320s Independence Air helped passenger numbers at IAD grow a whopping 60% in just two years between 2003 and 2005 before the airline collapsed in January 2006. IAD traffic fell by 15% in that year followed by more modest growth of 7.5% in 2007. This growth was helped by the arrival of Southwest Airlines at IAD in October 2006.

Chart: Washington airports seasonality
Source: MWAA

Traffic so far in 2008 has been down around 3.5% at DCA and 2.5% at IAD, though traffic at IAD was actually up marginally in July. The leading carriers at each airport are shown below.

Top 6 airlines at IAD Capacity share at IAD Top 6 airlines at DCA Capacity share at DCA
United 61.1% US Airways 43.0%
JetBlue 5.9% Delta 14.5%
Delta 4.1% American 14.2%
American 3.7% Northwest 7.9%
Southwest 3.4% United 5.2%
Virgin America 1.9% Continental 5.0%
Source: OAG Max Online for September 2008

United, supported by its partner airlines such as Chautauqua, Colgan Air, Mesa, Shuttle America and Trans States has a dominant 60% of seats and 70% of flights at IAD. JetBlue is now the second largest airline with flights to nine destinations. Southwest, which has been at the airport for less than two years, already ranks in the top 5 despite only serving four destinations; Chicago Midway, Las Vegas, Orlando and Tampa. Virgin America, ranked sixth only started serving the capital last September and serves only two destinations; Los Angeles and San Francisco.

IAD is the main gateway for foreign carriers serving Washington. Air France and British Airways both operate between two and three daily flights from their respective home bases at CDG and Heathrow. Other foreign carriers operating at least daily flights include ANA, Austrian, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, SAS, South African Airways, TACA and Virgin Atlantic. Of United’s 100 routes from the airport, 21 are to international destinations.

This winter United plans to introduce new international services to Dubai, but has recently asked permission to push back its planned new service to Moscow Domodedovo from October to March 2009. Also from mid-December JetBlue is looking to launch new seasonal routes to West Palm Beach and Fort Myers in Florida, as well as weekly flights to San Juan and Cancun.

Image: Airport Top down view
Projects in the D2 Dulles Development capital construction programme include expansion of the International Arrivals Building, which will nearly double capacity to 2,400 passengers per hour. A fourth runway is scheduled to be operational in November 2008.

US Airways market leader at DCA

Only 12 airlines operate scheduled services from DCA with Air Canada being the only non-US carrier with regular flights to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. The six US ‘legacy’ carriers are the six busiest airlines while additional services are provided by AirTran, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Midwest and Spirit. This week AirTran terminated its route to Milwaukee citing the fact that it was unable to obtain rights to operate a second daily service, without which it feels it can not compete with Midwest Airlines which operates 33 weekly departures on the route.

Fares at both airports among the most expensive in the US

Based on US Department of Transportation data both airports regularly feature among the 10 most expensive airports in the US based on air fares paid by passengers. Given its location and convenience maybe it is no surprise that DCA is so expensive, especially in short-haul markets.

Washington DCA: Period Fare Premium All Markets Fare Premium Short-Haul Fare Premium Long-Haul
2007 Q1 +23% +33% +14%
2007 Q2 +18% +28% +11%
2007 Q3 +21% +35% +10%
2007 Q4 +24.5% +39.0% +13.1%
Source: US DOT Office of Aviation Analysis

Fares on short-haul routes are typically 30% more than the national average when adjusted for sector length. For longer-haul flights the fare premium is a more modest 10%-14%.

Washington IAD: Period Fare Premium All Markets Fare Premium Short-Haul Fare Premium Long-Haul
2007 Q1 +12% +9% +13%
2007 Q2 +11% +13% +11%
2007 Q3 +16% +20% +15%
2007 Q4 +16.1% +21.7% +14.4%
Source: US DOT Office of Aviation Analysis

Long-haul fare premiums from IAD are similar to those at DCA but short-haul fare premiums are slightly better. However, in each of the last four quarters the fare premium has been increasing which is not good news for passengers.


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