Small uptick in June passenger traffic hints at pattern for rest of 2013

A small June passenger gain at McCarran International Airport reported Friday presages the likely pattern for the balance of the year.

During the month, 3.65 million people flew in or out of Las Vegas, 1.8 percent higher than one year ago. Although the year started with four straight down months, the June performance plus a slightly better one in May meant the first half passenger total is now 0.1 percent better than 2012’s at 20.75 million.

Projections by both McCarran through October and the travel data firm Innovata through December show seat counts scheduled by airlines rising close to 2 percent, with monthly variations. The seat counts from January through April declined while May and June rose, closely tracking the passenger counts.

In their second-quarter earnings, the major airlines have reported stable or declining fuel costs, generally the largest single expense. When prices spurted upward in recent years, the airlines have responded not only by hiking fares but also by tightening schedules to eliminate marginal routes. Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, in particular, has followed this strategy and willingly parked its planes during fuel spikes rather than operate them at a loss.

Because Las Vegas primarily attracts bargain-hunting tourists and few road warriors willing to pay top dollar, the city and its all-important visitor industry have absorbed the hit on airline service when prices have risen. But the improved fuel environment has started to show results.

Nearly 50 percent of visitors fly to Las Vegas, with surveys showing they stay longer and spend more than those who drive. With the industry still in a halting recovery, particularly when it comes to hotel room rates, more flights are critical to a stronger economy.

During June, four of the five largest carriers posted gains and only four domestic ones showed declines. Another, AirTran, is being wound down by owner Southwest Airlines.

As a result, the overall domestic passenger count rose 1.2 percent, a reversal of the cuts from previous months. During the first half, the total is still down 0.5 percent.

Market leader Southwest/AirTran went up 2.1 percent because it flew larger planes, even though it had about three fewer flights per day. Allegiant was up 8.8 percent, turning around the declines of earlier in the year.

No. 3 United, still working through the losses that have followed its merger with Continental, was off 6.2 percent.

The international side continued as a strong point, up 8.5 percent in June. But the numerical gain, only 19,000 passengers to 242,000, barely moves the total airport needle.

About three-fourths of the contribution came from came from British Airways, which bolstered its schedule to include flights to two London airports instead of just its hub at London Heathrow, and Panama’s Copa, which inaugurated McCarran service at the end of June 2012. The latter recently announced that it would boost its once-a-day flights to two a day on four days a week.

Others that saw better performances included the Dutch carrier Arkefly, with more than double what it did a year ago, Air Canada, WestJet and Korean Airlines.