Passenger numbers at Charlotte’s airport did something they haven’t done since 2009 – fall

The number of passengers traveling through Charlotte Douglas International Airport dropped 1 percent in 2016, the first reversal in years for an airport used to seeing its numbers rise.

Charlotte Douglas saw about 44.4 million passengers in 2016, down from almost 44.9 million in 2015. Airport officials and American Airlines, Charlotte’s main carrier, attributed the drop to a slightly lower number of passengers flying on American’s flights, not to cuts in capacity by the airline.

“We’ve been looking at it and talking to American about it, and we don’t see anything that would lead us to believe it was anything other than happenstance,” said Aviation Director Brent Cagle. “American hasn’t pulled down any frequencies (of flights) or destinations.”

American in 2013 merged with US Airways, which had its largest hub in Charlotte. The airport here is now American’s second-busiest location, behind Dallas/Fort Worth, and an airline spokeswoman said Charlotte remains an “essential hub.”

To be sure, far more passengers are using Charlotte’s airport than 15 years ago: 23.2 million passengers traveled through Charlotte Douglas in 2001, meaning there’s been an increase of more than 20 million annual users since then. Charlotte Douglas is also seeing more air cargo, which rose more than 14 percent last year.

Cagle also pointed to the increasing proportion of local passengers who are starting or ending their trips in Charlotte. About 21 percent of Charlotte Douglas passengers are local, up from about 19 percent three years ago. Cagle said the stronger local travel market will encourage more airlines to add flights, especially to international destinations. The number of international travelers at Charlotte Douglas is relatively small – 3.1 million travelers out of the 44.4 million total – but was still up about 10 percent in 2016.

The drop in 2016 was the first annual decline in total passengers at Charlotte Douglas since 2009, when the number of passengers dipped less than 1 percent from 2008. That was at the depths of the recession, when air travel fell as consumers sharply cut back on spending and several of the major airlines teetered towards bankruptcy.

Passenger numbers have also declined in Phoenix, another former US Airways hub. American has reduced capacity at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and the number of passengers there through October was down 1.6 percent, according to reports.

Charlotte Douglas has retained its hub status by keeping operating costs exceptionally low for American, like it did for predecessors US Airways, USAir and Piedmont Airlines. The airport is owned and operated by the city, but independently financed through concessions sales and parking, airline landing fees and federal grants.

The airport is the 6th busiest in the world by takeoffs and landings, and seen as a key economic driver for Charlotte’s economy.

Charlotte is in the early stages of a $2.5 billion plan that’s meant to expand roadways, add another runway, build a new control tower, add another concourse and more gates and expand the terminal to accommodate growth. Last year, Charlotte Douglas reached a new, 10-year lease with the airlines.

American Airlines spokeswoman Katie Cody said the dip in passenger numbers doesn’t mean Charlotte Douglas’ future as a major hub is in doubt.

“There was no concerted effort to cut any flights,” said Cody, who attributed the dip to a “re-shuffling of flights” following the 2013 merger with US Airways and swap-outs of different plane types in American’s fleet. Cody said the total number of available seat miles American is flying from Charlotte (an industry measure of capacity) is actually up slightly.

“It’s an essential hub,” said Cody. “We’re continuing to add flights here.”

New destinations

The overall number of flights in Charlotte was flat compared to the prior year, with 545,742 takeoffs and departures in 2016.

The airline added flights from Charlotte last year to nine new destinations, including San Jose, Havana, Cuba and Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. This week, American announced it’s adding weekly service to Bangor, Maine and Georgetown, Bahamas.

The majority of passengers at Charlotte Douglas – typically around 80 percent – are connecting from one flight to another rather than starting or ending their flights at Charlotte. That’s far higher than many other major hubs, where local travelers make up a bigger percentage of passengers. In Miami, for example, about 57 percent of passengers are starting or stopping their trip their, according to Fitch Ratings. At the three New York-area airports, local passengers account for around 70 percent of traffic, while in Phoenix, it’s 59 percent.

Flights at Charlotte Douglas are also heavily concentrated with its main carrier, American, which accounts for about 92 percent of traffic at the airport. By contrast, American accounts for about 51 percent of traffic at Phoenix and 66 percent at Miami.

Cagle, the aviation director, said he’s encouraged by Charlotte’s growing proportion of local travelers, higher cargo capacity and higher international traffic.

“Even though this year was slightly off,” said Cagle, “there are a lot of really positive numbers and positive trends that we’re looking at beyond just that total passengers.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo