Two years after Katrina, New Orleans airport still in the dumps

Fewer tourists, less business and convention traffic, and a smaller home population continues to spell trouble for Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, two long years after the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Departures in July were 24 per cent lower than in July 2005, the last full month before the 29 August storm battered the city. Southwest Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, is only flying about half the flights to and from New Orleans it did in 2005.

Airport officials say they project service to return to about 90 per cent of pre-Katrina levels only by the end of 2008. To attract new business, the airport waives landing fees for up to 12 months for flights to new cities. It also cuts its per-passenger charge for airlines that reach the airport's growth targets.

But despite these sweeteners, only three airlines - AirTran, Continental and American - have rebuilt their service to near-2005 levels. Airlines have reduced the number of seats available at New Orleans by about 32 per cent from two years ago, which is corresponds with the drop in the city's tourist and resident populations.

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau says the number of leisure travellers visiting the city is at about 60 per cent of pre-Katrina levels. Many believe only two-thirds of the pre-storm residents returned to New Orleans after Katrina, though exact numbers are hard to come by.

Since August 2005, the airport has no flights to Indianapolis, Oakland, San Francisco and Toronto, among other cities; though it has gained non-stop services to Austin and San Antonio. This impacts the business travel trade. Microsoft, for example, has had to cancel three conventions planned for New Orleans this year, owing to lack of adequate airline services.

Even the National Business Aviation Association scrambled to relocate its 2005 convention to Orlando following the hurricane. It announced in April that it would also move its 2008 convention away from New Orleans.

The NBAA says conditions at New Orleans Lakefront Airport (NEW), where aircraft static displays would be located, haven't improved sufficiently to support the displays. The airport has now enlisted the help of aviation consultant Michael Boyd to attract new services.