After nearly a decade of declining outbound passengers, daylight could be breaking through the dark clouds that seem to have enveloped Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport.
Although the airport witnessed a 27 percent decrease in passengers from 2007 to 2016, an uptick in enplanements and three recent developments have airport and travel industry officials feeling hopeful.
Seven of the last 10 months have seen year-over-year increases in passengers flying out of Rick Husband. The airport is on pace to match its enplanement total from last year, a much-needed stabilization after a long nosedive.
“I think we’re making some headway,” said Michael Conner, the airport’s newly hired aviation director. “We’ve had some single-digit increases (in percentage of enplanements) over the last couple months. Since 2016, we’ve been making progress.”
Looking at the 334,661 passengers that flew out of Amarillo in 2016, a long journey remains to the airport’s all-time high of 458,172 departing passengers 10 years ago.
Conner said Thursday that voyage is more realistic than many realize.
The airport has received a federal grant that will help it lure a westbound airline to the city.
The city is within six months of beginning that service to Phoenix, Conner said.
Two additional weekend flights to Dallas Love Field began last month, and Conner reported a rise in traffic.
American Airlines recently rolled out a test of its “Basic Economy” seating that requires customers to fit their carry-on items under the seat in front of them and gives passengers utilizing the rate no say in their seat assignment. Twenty-five percent of the airline’s first Basic Economy routes either fly to or from Amarillo.
“Any time you have lower rates out of any airport, I think you’re going to see traffic increase,” Conner said. “The impact is yet to be seen, but it’s going to be a positive impact for sure.”
Why has travel out of Amarillo dropped?
One factor local airport and tourism officials can point to that, without question, affected traffic into and out of Rick Husband is the 2014 expiration of the Wright Amendment.
The federal law forced Southwest Airlines flights out of Dallas Love Field to stop at other in-state airports before flying on to noncontiguous, out-of-state destinations. Southwest 737s from Dallas that were only half-full used to touch down in Amarillo before picking up passengers and continuing to Denver.
Southwest discontinued that route when the Wright Amendment was lifted and now offers fewer flights out of Amarillo, said deputy director of aviation Tyler Hurst, who filled in as director before Conner started on June 12.
“We saw restructuring from Southwest Airlines in terms of their route network into and out of Amarillo, which subsequently caused (fewer) enplanements,” Hurst said.
Amarillo saw a 6 percent dip in traffic following the Wright Amendment’s expiration. In 2015, traffic into and out of Rick Husband International dropped to a record low of 679,653 — the first time fewer than 700,000 people had arrived or landed since data became available in 1979.
But with a decrease of more than 25 percent in the last eight years, there are other factors. Fuel prices, the overall economy and ticket prices have all played their roles.
Oil prices surged to more than $100 per barrel in 2008, and airlines passed those costs to customers. Higher ticket prices coupled with the housing crisis and subsequent recession caused traffic to drop 13 percent at Rick Husband between 2008 and 2009, per airport data.
There are also other factors for which there may be only anecdotal evidence.
One of the most discussed is the migration of potential passengers to airports in other cities such as Lubbock and Dallas.
Amarillo Convention &Visitor Council Vice President Dan Quandt said he hears it all the time.
Passengers are headed to Lubbock and Dallas where they feel that they have more options with cheaper airfares.
But consulting firm Trillion Aviation conducted a study in 2014 that showed Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport suffers only eight percent leakage to other regional travel hubs, which is on par with airports around the state.
The study showed locals will fly out of Amarillo if it doesn’t result in significantly more stops before their final destination, though it did find that Lubbock’s Preston Smith International Airport — which offers direct flights to Phoenix — does poach some travelers headed to Austin.
The near future
It’s fitting that Rick Husband Amarillo International’s rise from the ashes may correspond with a new flight to Phoenix.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International was the 10th-busiest airport in 2015, according to Federal Aviation Administration data, behind Las Vegas and Denver.
Trillion Aviation’s 2014 route analysis conservatively estimated 60 passengers would travel the Phoenix route each day, Conner said. Although the added flight wouldn’t be a silver bullet to end the airport’s enplanement problems, it would likely chip away at the 61 percent of westward travelers who currently first fly through Dallas-Fort Worth or Dallas Love Field.
“This is something that’s been on hold for quite some time since the previous director left (the same month the grant was awarded),” Conner said. “I’m trying to resurrect it in an aggressive fashion.”
Former director of aviation Sara Freese abruptly resigned in September.
In the airport’s application for the $750,000 Department of Transportation grant, Freese wrote she sought funds “to financially support American Eagle/SkyWest (Airlines) during the ramp-up period of the new Phoenix service initiative.”
Conner encouraged consultants to continue pursuing a route with American Airlines, the parent company of American Eagle, during Thursday’s Airport Advisory Board meeting.
Conner previously helped negotiate a route between his former airport, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and Detroit using a DOT grant. The flight had a steady stream of passengers within six to eight months and remains active today — 12 years after the route was implemented.
The Amarillo Economic Development Corp., which has funded millions of dollars in airport improvements throughout the years, understands the economic consequences of a well-woven aerial web.
Doug Nelson, AEDC senior vice president of financial services, noted that the corporations his organization aims to attract to Amarillo often need to travel for work.
“The better air service we have, the happier businesses are going to be,” Nelson said. “It’s all tied directly to their ability to access customers and vendors, in some cases all the way around the world.”
Flights to and from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International — Delta’s base and the busiest airport in America — would open up a world of business opportunities and travel possibilities. But finding another city to pair with can be tricky because its residents need an incentive to come to Amarillo.
That’s an imperative whether it’s a hypothetical future of an Atlanta flight, Conner’s confirmation that there are ongoing conversations regarding an Austin route or the foreseeable Phoenix haul to Amarillo’s west.
Amarillo needs to prove it’s worth visiting.
Part of that responsibility falls to Conner, who is required to promote both the airport and the Phoenix route as part of the grant, but it will really hinge on further city development.
“You want to be able to deliver both ways,” Quandt said. “If we can’t come up with reasons for people from Phoenix — from anywhere — to come here, (the route) is going to go away.”