|By Jaclyn Giovis, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 3, 2008 - Airlines are retreating from South Florida, which could leave hotels and restaurants with fewer tourists this fall.
This month, carriers using Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will offer 94,160 fewer seats than in September 2007, a 9.6 percent cut.
United Airlines is abandoning the airport, and carriers such as American, Continental, and Delta will cut flights. Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines will add seats, but total seat availability is still projected to be down the equivalent of about 27 departures per day.
Add on the fact that consumers are pinching pennies, and South Florida tourism officials say the region -- which has long benefited from heavy airline competition and frequent service -- could be headed for trouble.
"If airplanes don't fly here, then the hotel rooms are not going to be full," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Fuel expenses are the main reason airlines are slashing flights to Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and other vacation spots this fall. As costs soar, cheap escapes don't yield as much profit as business-oriented routes.
Airlines typically trim flights to South Florida in September and October to compensate for sluggish demand. This fall, though, the cuts run deeper. And with the supply of seats falling, ticket prices are rising.
JetBlue Airways, for example, has raised fares from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Fort Lauderdale to an all-time high of $114 each way from a low of $89 a year ago, JetBlue executive Rick Zeni said. While its daily departure count of 27 flights hasn't changed from last September, the airline now has smaller planes with fewer seats on some Fort Lauderdale routes to save money.
"We know some people are going to be priced out," said Zeni, the carrier's vice president of revenue management.
Palm Beach International Airport will be down about 10 percent in seat capacity this September compared with last, which amounts to about 15 departures daily. Delta and Continental each cut two daily flights. One regional airline is cutting nine daily flights. A few low-fare carriers are scaling back slightly, and United is leaving the airport altogether, a loss of one flight a day.
Hotels have felt a chill this summer, when occupancy fell about 4 percent in Broward County.
"This is the time of year that people bundle up their kids and get in the car or get on a plane and come to Florida," said Elaine Fitzgerald, a Pompano Beach hotelier. "They're just not coming."
Fitzgerald and others are worried that their normally slow fall season will be even slower this year. To try to avoid that, she's spending more on marketing, and throwing in a free dinner for two with a three-night stay.
At the Howard Johnson hotel in Deerfield Beach, the average daily rate this summer has been about $99 versus $112 a year ago, General Manager Julian Felder said. That's a drop of 11.6 percent. Lowering the room rates, offering a 15 percent discount on two-night stays, and promoting all-inclusive Internet deals is necessary for the hotel to stay competitive, he said.
"The trend is downward, and we're worried about that," Felder said.
Most South Florida hotels depend on leisure travelers for more than 70 percent of room bookings, Grossman said. International tourists, groups and business travelers account for the rest.
While international travelers have helped keep the hotel business viable, the pick-up of foreign visitors has not made up for the overall decline in customers, said Fitzgerald, owner of Beach Vacation Rentals group.
With fewer seats in play, tourism losses are inevitable in leisure destinations, said Tom Parsons, founder of Bestfares.com. Other vacation spots such as Las Vegas and Orlando already have felt the pain of fewer travelers, he said.
At the Marriott BeachPlace Towers, a time-share resort in Fort Lauderdale, rentals are down 10 percent, General Manager Al Rosenthal said. And while the property is still 95 percent full, many time-share owners from the Northeast and Midwest now are finding it cheaper and more convenient to drive to South Florida than to fly, he said.
Hospitality businesses now are shifting their sales and marketing to focus on market niches -- international visitors, locals and corporations, Grossman said.
"It's very difficult to find a silver lining under these circumstances," she said. "For the long term, that's not a good economic scenario."
Jaclyn Giovis can be reached at 954-356-4668 or jmgiovis@SunSentinel.com.
What it means Airlines are pulling flights from leisure destinations to stem losses from high fuel costs. Fort Lauderdale faces a 9.6% decrease in available seats for September. That's a loss of
Compare To check airlines for on-time flight performance, go to SunSentinel. com/airlines
To see more of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/.
Copyright (c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA. NASDAQ-OTCBB:AMKKQ, NYSE:LUV, NASDAQ-NMS:JBLU,