No new flights or airlines for BTR this year, but officials tout some wins

    A year after airport officials said they were “pretty confident” in landing new destinations and potentially a new carrier like Southwest, the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport has not yet seen those materialize.

    However, interim airport director Ralph Hennessy said at today’s second annual “State of the Airport” address that BTR has steadily increased its seating capacity and passenger volume, and saw a small decline in airfare this year. He anticipates those trends will continue through next year.

    “We have not had any additional cities served in 2017,” Hennessy said. “(But) we’re still pretty optimistic in 2018 that we’ll get a new destination.”

    The airport is facing several challenges in that quest. For one, a national pilot shortage is roiling smaller regional airports around the country, a trend that Hennessy said makes it difficult for airports like Baton Rouge to convince airlines to expand their offerings.

    Plus, an expected softening in the local economy could reduce demand for business travel in Baton Rouge, especially given the petrochemical sector is one of the largest segments of the BTR market for business travelers.

    “Certainly we’re concerned if the economy softens to the point that people aren’t traveling,” he said. “But Baton Rouge has done a good job weathering the storm” of what has effectively been a statewide recession in recent years.

    BTR officials are still eyeing new routes to Houston’s Hobby Airport—a highly-sought route for travelers in the petrochemical industry—as well as Los Angeles, New York City and Philadelphia, among others.

    Another cloud on the horizon for BTR is the looming impact of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft on ancillary airport revenues like parking. Both Uber and Lyft operate in Baton Rouge and at the airport, and The New York Times reports that airports throughout the country have seen sliding revenues for parking and rental car services as those services proliferate. BTR also increased its parking fees by $2 last year to help pay for $5 million in upgrades to the parking garage.

    Hennessy said that phenomenon hasn’t made its way here yet, and rental car revenue is actually up this year, but it is a national trend that could hurt revenues at BTR soon.

    “We will be watching those numbers in 2018,” he said.

    Apart from the coming challenges, Hennessy touted changes that he is pursuing the zoning of the Aviation Business Park that he said will make it easier to develop. Plus, there are at least 10 capital projects, worth $23 million, on tap for the airport next year, as part of a $350 million master plan for the next 15 years. And 80% of flights currently have first-class service at BTR, a number that should increase next year to virtually all flights as airlines bring larger and larger planes.

    —Sam Karlin

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