Kansas City, Mo. Kansas City International Airport -- still hurting from the collapse of Vanguard Airlines and a slow-recovering economy -- had fewer people pass through its gates for the third consecutive year.
About 9.4 million passengers departed or arrived at KCI in 2003 -- a 5.1 percent drop from 2002, according to recently released passenger data from the Kansas City Aviation Department.
Nationwide, the decrease was 2.8 percent, according to the Air Transport Assn. And the numbers continue KCI's worst passenger-count setback since the demise of Eastern and Braniff airlines in the late 1980s.
However, the decrease was not as severe as the nearly 15 percent plunge the airport saw in 2002. That has KCI officials thinking the worst could be over.
"We think that we have turned the corner," said Tom McKenna, the Aviation Department's marketing director. He noted that KCI's overall passenger numbers have been down considerably since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We think there will be a slow and steady recovery, but not a dramatic rebound," McKenna said.
The annual passenger numbers at KCI topped 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.
Then came the terrorist attacks, which started a 24-month skid in monthly passenger numbers .
Making matters worse for KCI were the sagging local economy and the July 2002 shutdown of Vanguard Airlines -- once the airport's second-busiest carrier.
A national transportation advocacy group called Reconnecting America recently completed a study that showed KCI had a 30.2 percent reduction in flight service for a two-year period after the terrorist attacks. That reduction was the third-highest among airports categorized as "small and medium hub." Only airports in Atlantic City, N.J., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., fared worse in that category.
Hank Dittmar, president of Reconnecting America, said the findings were based on the Official Airline Guide's database of flight schedules for all airlines.
The study had one finding that could be interpreted as good news for KCI -- low-cost and regional carriers have grown significantly, and Southwest Airlines, which is the busiest carrier at KCI, was "a model of aviation success."
And there were airports largely served by low-cost or regional carriers that had positive passenger numbers in 2003. One was Indianapolis International Airport.
That airport's 7.3 million passengers represented a 7 percent increase from 2002.
Airport spokesman Dennis Rosebrough said Southwest and ATA, formerly known as American Trans Air, now make up one-third of the airport's market share.
"They are clearly impacting our numbers," he said. "They serve leisure travel destinations, and that translates into competitive air fares from other carriers."
McKenna said KCI was pursuing numerous low-cost and regional carriers.
"We can get more airlines in here," McKenna said, "but it will take time."
City Manager Wayne Cauthen has courted Denver-based Frontier Airlines about expanding at KCI.