Orlando airport flies past Miami's

One of the surest signs yet that Orlando is pulling out of a three-year drop in tourism -- a record 31.1 million fliers used Orlando International Airport in 2004. Orlando's passenger count was up about 14 percent from the year before, putting it ahead of Miami International to become Florida's busiest airport.

Miami, for years the state's No. 1 airport in terms of the number of fliers, saw about 30.2 million passengers last year, an increase of 1.9 percent from a year earlier. Orlando's recovery has outpaced the airline industry's overall. Nationwide, boardings rose 5.7 percent in 2004 compared with the year before.

"This increase . . . reflects the strong growth we have seen in tourism and business travel to Central Florida," said Bill Jennings, the airport's executive director. It also reflects the growth of airlines that serve Orlando, he said. Just in December, AeroMexico, Air Canada, Independence Air, Sun Country and Delta Connection carrier Chautauqua added a total of 152 flights to and from Orlando.

The airport's strong performance is only the latest sign that Central Florida's No. 1 industry has largely recovered from a slump that began in early 2001 with a recession and deepened with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Orlando Sanford International, which handles mostly international charter flights, saw a record 1.8 million passengers last year, a 46 percent increase from 2003.

Overall, the Orlando area's visitor count fell sharply after the attacks but reached a record 45 million in 2003, according to estimates from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Officials predicted the visitor total would rise to 47.9 million visitors for 2004 and reach 50.8 million in 2005.

Hotel occupancy reflects the increase. On average, area hotels were 70.7 percent full in 2004, a 13 percent improvement from the year before, according to Smith Travel Research.

Theme-park attendance has also improved, though it's thought that business is still off from where it was four years ago. Last year, the combined visitor counts at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando rose nearly 6 percent to 59.3 million, the trade magazine Amusement Business said. That's still a few million shy of the estimated 62.5 million people who passed through the turnstiles at the seven big parks in 2000.

The latest increase in the number of fliers at Orlando International means the airport may be a step closer to completing work on its long-delayed south terminal. Before the 2001 attacks that kept many travelers from flying, airport officials had hoped the second terminal building would open this year. Jennings said the existing terminal can handle about 40 million fliers a year. Airport officials estimate that passenger traffic may reach that level as soon as mid-2006 or as late as mid-2011. Site work has already begun for a second terminal, and a shuttle station and elevated track have been installed at the existing terminal. Once the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority decides to go ahead and build the south terminal, construction would take about 21/2 years, Jennings said.

Todd Pack can be reached at 407-420-5407 or tpack@orlandosentinel.com.

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