Southwest cutting flights

Southwest Airlines, which accounts for two-thirds of passenger traffic at Bob Hope Airport, will phase out 12% of its weekly flights by September, airport officials said.

The carrier's decision to trim 82 flights from its weekly schedule is expected to further decrease already-declining passenger numbers at the commuter hub. The drop from 712 to 630 weekly flights will mean a 6% reduction in the total weekly flights leaving the airport.

The Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority last week presented the proposal to airport commissioners.

“Southwest Airlines has been pretty steady for years,” Commissioner Don Brown said. “For them to take a hit like this is a concern, but it's not a surprise.”

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said he would not discuss specifics until the carrier officially releases its schedule.

“What we've been doing for a couple of years now is optimizing our entire schedule,” Mainz said. “We're doing that all over the system, and it's really a matter of matching supply with demand and reallocating operations to airports where we're doing well.”

The announcement came days before the carrier on Thursday reported $11 million in first-quarter profits.

Passenger figures have a significant impact on the airport's revenues and potentially affect planned capital improvement projects if they continue to slump, commissioners said.

But revenues have yet to dip below projections.

Passenger traffic in February was down 4.9% from the previous year, dragging the year-to-date figure down to 1.6%, according to airport records.

Last year's passenger numbers fell to their lowest point in eight years, from 5.3 million in 2008 to 4.6 million in 2009.

The volume of passengers peaked at more than 5.9 million in 2007.

Spiraling figures would likely continue until deflated corporate budgets and leisure travel rebound, Commissioner Charles Lombardo said.

Proposed reductions would affect all five markets served from Bob Hope Airport: Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Airport officials said the carrier's redundant flight schedule would allow travelers to make up for possible lost departures.

Airport spokesman Victor Gill said the proposal mirrors an industrywide trend of reducing the number of total seats and attempting to achieve greater capacity on ones that remain.

That allows carriers to fly regional jets of roughly 60 passengers rather than 130-passenger Boeing 737s, he said.

The trend is also reflected in the number of legacy carriers contracting out operations to regional airlines.

At Bob Hope Airport, United Express and Delta Connection have engaged in marketing partnerships with SkyWest Airlines.

And US Airways has tapped Mesa Airlines.

“[Southwest Airlines] know they haven't had the demand, so what they're doing is compressing the number of flights,” Lombardo said. “Hopefully the load factor on existing flights goes up because we know people will have fewer options.”

The cost of fuel, which in the first quarter increased 33% year-over-year to $2.34 per gallon, also remains a significant factor.

While the timing of the announcement allows airport officials enough time to project revenue while crafting their 2010-11 budget, Burbank Mayor Gary Bric said schedule changes would have broad implications for the city's economy.

“I was disappointed to hear about the reduction in flights at Bob Hope Airport, as the impacts from the parking, hotel, fuel and sales taxes will have adverse impacts on our overall budget,” Bric said.

When Southwest Airlines began service from Burbank in April 1990 the region saw an immediate influx of travelers. Service expanded to 54 daily nonstop flights to five cities, with direct or connecting flights to another 57 cities.

Brown said the carrier has remained favorable with passengers who value convenience, and the fact that the airline has refrained from charging for check-in or carry-on luggage — steps several airlines have taken.

“They give the traveling public the best deals out there, and they've been that way a while,” he said.

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