- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 28, 2004

World airline traffic has climbed just above the levels of the industry’s last “normal” year in 2000, before international air travel collapsed from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the economic slump and the SARS crisis.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said yesterday that the outlook for the rest of 2004 also is good, with double-digit growth expected for the year.

Passenger traffic was 20.4 percent higher for the first six months of the year compared with a year earlier, while cargo traffic was 13 percent higher, IATA said.

The number of passengers was 8.4 percent higher than in 2000.

“If airlines can maintain strict control on their costs and capacity, the strong traffic recovery for this year could see the industry break even or better,” said IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani.

High on the list of costs are soaring fuel prices, which are about $6 a barrel above what the organization had expected for the year. Crude oil closed at a record $42.90 on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday.

For the month of June alone, overall global passenger traffic was 25.5 percent higher than last year.

Domestic airline traffic is increasing at about the same rate as the worldwide average.

“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for major U.S. airlines.

Competition among airlines has kept fares low while the economy is improving, he said. As a result, business and leisure travelers are flying on trips they postponed in previous years.

“When people weren’t sure about the economy or their jobs, they were reluctant to take vacations,” Mr. Wills said.

Second-quarter reports from major airlines show the number of passengers flying was high in the first half of this year, although earnings were hurt by fuel prices and stiff competition from low-fare airlines.

Even large airlines that have been struggling the last several years, like American Airlines and US Airways, made small profits while others improved on devastating losses from previous years.

Passenger growth in the United States is renewing calls for the federal government to figure out a way to manage airline traffic better.

One of the bottlenecks is at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where airlines complain the airport’s limited capacity is tying up their schedules and delaying passengers.

“O’Hare’s on-time performance is unacceptable and has a substantial ripple effect on our nation’s aviation system,” said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

Yesterday, he called for a meeting with airlines to discuss ways to reduce congestion at O’Hare, one of the nation’s busiest airports.

More than 53 million people are expected to fly on commercial airlines this year in the United States, according to the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The figure is roughly the same as the number of passengers in the year before the September 11 attacks.

Internationally, traffic for the first six months of the year increased by 20.1 percent in North America, 35 percent in the Asia-Pacific region and 12.8 percent in Europe. Middle East air traffic was up 44.3 percent.

Local airport officials say they are ready to handle larger numbers of passengers.

“We are definitely seeing a return to pre-September 11 levels,” said Tara Hamilton, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman. “That’s one of the main reasons we’re continuing with our [Washington Dulles International Airport] development construction program, to add more capacity at the airport.”

The $3 billion project includes a new runway, control tower, more parking and an underground passenger train.

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