March airline plunge softens in April

Passenger traffic is still falling. That’s not going to change for a while. But, the decline slowed in April, signaling that the prolonged sharp dips may be behind us. Some optimists even believe that the worst is over – though I maintain a healthy skepticism.

Note the metric being used: passenger traffic. There’s a lot of mileage between asses in seats and money in the bank. On a positive note, increased passenger traffic means that more people are spending money on travel. Of course, deep discounts are responsible in large part for the increasing traffic. The value of these passengers in dollar terms, therefore, is quite low.

United Airlines reported a traffic drop of 10.5 percent in April 2009 relative to the same month in 2008. Delta and American sustained smaller declines. Southwest, meanwhile, showed a 4.1 percent increase.

And, fares fell.

The average one-way domestic fare paid in the first quarter of 2008 was $213 – compared to $246 for full-year 2008.

For now, however, the airlines believe it’s better to sell seats at any price, especially if they have to put a plane in the air anyway.