Kansas City, Mo. For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a key gauge of passengers at Kansas City International Airport shows an upward trend.
In September, 732,677 travelers either arrived or departed from KCI, a 1.4 percent increase from September 2002, according to the Kansas City Aviation Department.
Although the jump was small, it ended two years of monthly passenger figures falling below that of the previous year, a tumble whose beginning coincided with the 2001 attacks.
The increase came as good news to KCI officials, who endured a nearly 15 percent passenger drop in 2002, one of the country's most severe declines.
Tom McKenna, marketing director for the Aviation Department, said the September numbers were up for two reasons: the 7.2 percent increase in the national economy's growth rate for the third quarter, and the fact that a year had passed since Kansas City-based Vanguard Airlines shut down after declaring bankruptcy. That means Vanguard no longer is in the equation when crunching the numbers.
McKenna said he was "guardedly optimistic" about the September numbers.
The airport's year-to-date total of slightly more than 7 million passengers remains 7.3 percent below the same period last year. And the average number of daily departures from KCI still is falling.
Still, McKenna said the September numbers signaled that the worst might be over.
"I think we have bottomed out," he said. "Nobody is expecting a dramatic rebound. I think there will be slow and steady improvement, but it may well take us until 2007 or even 2008 before we rebuild to pre-September 11 levels."
The annual passenger numbers at KCI had soared over 10 million from 1996 to 2001. In that year, the airport was on pace to top 12 million, which would have been a record high. It also was about to have 300 departing daily flights.
Then came the terrorist attacks. All flights were grounded for two days. Airlines cut their schedules. Demand for air travel plummeted.
Making problems worse was a drop in the local economy, which included downsizings by large employers such as Sprint and Aquila, and Vanguard's demise in summer 2002.
It all led to the airport's worst passenger-number setback since the demise of Eastern and Braniff airlines more than a decade ago.
Travelers take notice
Travelers last week at KCI were not surprised by the jump in airport traffic.
David Wedge of Kansas City recalled how dramatically different the airport seemed from when he flew in October 2001.
"The airport was completely dead. There was no one around," he said. "Now it seems quite full."
Stacy Braksick of Lawrence noticed that the airport seemed much busier now than when she flew from it in December.
"Maybe people feel safer now, going through all the security," she said.
Several travelers echoed her statement, but Patrick O'Shaugnessy from England saw the situation differently. "I don't think people feel safer. I think people have short memories," he said.
Other airports up
Because of the Vanguard collapse, KCI's economic rebound is expected to take longer than at other airports.
For example, at Indianapolis International Airport, which has a market size similar to KCI's, 2003 passenger numbers through August were up 6 percent from the same period in 2002, said Dennis Rosebrough, a spokesman for that airport.
The monthly numbers from May to August at that airport were up 4 percent, 8 percent, 7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, Rosebrough said.
"We had a very good summer and are continuing to see a rebound," he said.
KCI also is in position for a strong rebound because no airline uses it as a hub, said Vaughn Cordle, managing director for AirlineForecasts .com, a Washington-based airline research firm.
That means KCI could attract several airlines, including smaller ones that charge less for fares, once the economic recovery reaches full swing, Cordle said.
He said that factors contributing to the third-quarter upswing in the national economy, such as President Bush's tax refunds, have trickled down to the airline industry.
Hoping for more flights
KCI officials are hoping that Cordle's prediction comes true soon. They have seen the average number of daily flights fall from 221 at the beginning of this year to 206. Before Vanguard's collapse in July 2002, the number was 271.
McKenna attributed the drop in daily departures to a dramatic cut in small commuter flights. US Airways Express, for instance, has dropped from 65 to fewer than 12 daily flights, he said.
McKenna said the Aviation Department continued to talk with low-cost carriers about locating or expanding at KCI.
Although fewer people have used the airport, the decrease did not cause any major service cuts. And it did not halt any major capital projects, including ongoing terminal renovations and construction of a 15,000-space off-site parking lot that is expected to open after Christmas.