Despite sky-high fuel prices and a slumping economy, early numbers released by the Martha’s Vineyard Airport this week show a summer season only slightly slower than last year. “We’re staying encouraged here,” said airport manager Sean Flynn this week.
Mr. Flynn reported a 6.4 per cent drop over last year in the number of commercial passengers leaving the Vineyard in May, June and July.
“In terms of aviation, you can see fluctuations of two, three, four per cent a year and no one thinks anything of it. This is just a three-month snapshot,” Mr. Flynn said. The number of commercial passengers leaving the Vineyard dropped 6.1 per cent in the calendar year 2005. There was a four per cent drop in the calendar year 2006 and a one per cent rise in 2007. “Now we’re seeing it do a little downturn again,” Mr. Flynn said. “So six per cent, yes, it’s more than we normally see.”
Two commercial airlines fly out of the Vineyard: Cape Air and U.S. Airways. Michelle Haynes, spokesman for Cape Air, said the airline’s numbers are consistent this summer.
“Passenger loads have been very, very steady. We’re just about the same as we were last year,” she said, adding: “There are some things that are as American as mom and apple pie and one of those is summer vacation. We are going to take our summer vacations.”
But according to Mr. Flynn’s numbers, the two airlines have carried 16,931 people off the Island this season. During the same period in 2007, they carried 18,901 passengers. The number does not factor in private and charter flights leaving the airport, nor does it include arriving flights. Mr. Flynn explained emplanements, the number of passengers flying out of an airport, is the way airports tally their figures.
Despite the drop, the airport has not decreased staff. “You’re somewhat handicapped until after the fact. Just like all people in business, you’re ready for it when it comes and if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come,” said Mr. Flynn. Nor are there predictions for what the rest of the summer will hold. “July is not an indicator for August and August is not an indicator for July,” Mr. Flynn said.
He said he is buoyed by a consistent drop in both jet fuel prices and the cost of aviation fuel over the past three weeks. “If you look at this three-week period, it’s dropped 66 cents. That’s nearly 10 per cent of the market price,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what effect that has in August if jet fuel continues to drop faster than automobile fuel.” He also said: “Those who are not going to fly because of the price of fuel stopped flying awhile ago. Those that are continuing to fly have realized we’re a competitive place to fly.”
He did say that people are changing their traveling habits because of the rising cost to visit the Vineyard. “My personal opinion is that there is a break even point whether people are driving or flying. When it gets too expensive, people just make different decisions. If you were someone who drove here, maybe you’re taking the train or the bus now. If you were a charter passenger, maybe you’re taking commercial airlines now. Maybe you are taking one vacation now instead of two and maybe that second was to Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
Numbers released by Mr. Flynn show that significant drops occurred in July. In 2007, U.S. Airways carried 2,762 passengers off the Island while Cape Air carried 7,520. This year, the number dropped to 2,361 for U.S. Airways and 7,056 for Cape Air. Both airlines have raised ticket prices. Cape Air has not changed its schedule from last year, but U.S. Airways has decreased flights, Mr. Flynn said.
Ms. Haynes did not release numbers, but she said to date, the company is down less than one per cent this year for flights to and from the Vineyard. “We didn’t see any appreciative drop off. We have the same number of flights, the same number of sections. Providence and Boston have been very strong for our Martha’s Vineyard market,” she said. “We are very happy because, as you know, there was some trepidation going into the season with people holding onto their disposable income and in this case, that did not pan out. People did continue to go on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.”
The change she has seen has been in the faces — and accents — of Cape Air passengers. “Frankly, we’re seeing mostly the same people we’ve been flying for years, but there have been new faces, mostly European and Canadians,” she said. “I think the Europeans are coming here for vacation and I think the Vineyard is definitely an indication of that.”
As for August, Ms. Haynes said the numbers are strong, but she cautioned against making predictions. “August has been looking very well, but we’ve still got two weeks left. The weather has got to cooperate. One of the biggest factors of whether someone will fly to the Vineyard for vacation is weather. Otherwise, they will drive, take the bus,” she said. “The better the weather, the better we do.”