By Joe Brancatelli
March 31, 2010 -- The last week in March is a great one for statistics. The corporate types put the final touches on the blizzard of numbers they release in annual reports. Basketball fans look at their busted brackets and wonder how those teams could have made the Final Four. Stat-obsessed baseball fans are hurriedly prepping for opening day.

Business travelers? We have the annual data dump from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). It arrived in a neat little bundle on Monday, complete with charts and percentages and some important revelations about the condition of our condition on the road.

So let's tiptoe through the data tables and try to figure out what it all means.

Let's Get Small(er)
The nation's air-transportation system continues to contract. Including domestic and international itineraries, 769.6 million people flew last year. That's 5.3 percent less than 2008's 812.3 million and more than 8 percent below 2007's total of 838.2 million. The decline covered both domestic (down 5.2 percent) and international (down 6.3 percent) travel. The decrease was also a yearlong reality; the passenger count declined in 10 months last year compared to the same month in 2008. The fall was most pronounced in the first half of last year, however. Travel fell 9 percent in the first six months of 2009. It was off a more modest 1.4 percent in the last six months. Of course, travel plummeted late in 2008 after Merrill Lynch tanked, so the comparison is a bit skewed.

The New Powerhouse in the Skies
Southwest Airlines' keep-it-simple-stupid approach to air travel—it offers the same service, the same seats, and the same fare structure on every flight on every day on every route across its system—rules the skies. For the third consecutive year, Southwest carried more passengers than any other U.S. carrier. It was the only airline to carry more than 100 million passengers in 2009, and it even flew more travelers than No. 4 United Airlines (56 million passengers in 2009) and No. 6 Continental Airlines (43 million) combined. This is all the more astounding when you consider that Southwest doesn't fly overseas. American Airlines is the largest U.S. carrier with international service. It carried a total of 85.7 million passengers; 19.5 million of them flew internationally.

One Plus One Equals Less Than Two
The BTS statistics reported separately for Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines even though the two carriers were joined at the corporate hip for most of 2009 and officially merged on December 31. Taken together, they carried 108.5 million passengers. That would have made it slightly larger than Southwest, which carried 101.3 million customers. (Delta-Northwest's combined total of 20.4 million international passengers would have made it slightly larger than American's overseas traffic too.) But the numbers are deceiving because Delta is shrinking fast. In 2008, Delta and Northwest carried a combined total of 120.3 million passengers. That means the two carriers in 2009 shrank almost 10 percent compared to 2008.

We're No. 10!
The nation's 10th-largest carrier in terms of passengers carried? SkyWest Airlines, which enplaned 21.4 million customers in 2009. Never heard of SkyWest? No surprise, really. It's a "regional carrier": industry jargon for a commuter operator that flies almost totally under some other carrier's brand name. All but a handful of SkyWest's 1,748 daily departures are operated as United Express (for United) or Delta Connection (for Delta). SkyWest's growth is emblematic of the industry's obsession with handing off service to subcontractors who fly smaller planes and pay their employees less. In fact, regional carriers like SkyWest now operate about half of the nation's flights and carry one in five domestic travelers.

The Airport Report
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, with 42.1 million passengers enplaned in 2009, is the nation's busiest airfield. Chicago's O'Hare International is now a distant second with 31 million flyers. Rounding out the top five is Los Angeles (27.7 million), Dallas/Fort Worth (26.5 million), and Denver (23.9 million). The nation's sixth-busiest airport, New York's John F. Kennedy International, handled 22.6 million passengers in 2009. More than 10.6 million passengers traveled internationally from JFK, making it the nation's busiest airport for overseas departures. Yet no airport was spared the effects of the shrinking airline system. Nine of the top-10 airports suffered overall traffic declines in 2009. The sole exception? Number 10 San Francisco, which grew by 1.8 percent. All 10 of the busiest airports for international passengers also suffered traffic declines.

Baggage Blindness
When I opined last year that airlines charging for checked bags were actually losing revenue because passengers were defecting, I was heckled by peddlers of conventional airline wisdom. But the BTS statistics once again affirm the correlation. Of the nine largest U.S. airlines, only JetBlue Airways carried more passengers in 2009 than in 2008. JetBlue allows all customers to check one bag free. The only one of the eight remaining carriers to keep its year-over-year passenger decline under 1 percent was Southwest, which allows customers to check two bags free. Airlines that charge some or all of their customers for checked bags suffered traffic declines ranging from 2.5 to 16.2 percent.

Still Awful After All These Years
Almost two years ago, I criticized United Airlines for its erratic corporate behavior and operations. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who noticed. United carried 56 million passengers last year, about 11 percent less than in 2008. That's more than twice the industrywide traffic decline.

What do all the BTS numbers mean? Well, how about this: A bad economy, indifferent airline service, and onerous government security regimens will convince travelers to stay home. And the only airlines that can hope to buck the trend are carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, which have reputations for consistent service, passenger-friendly policies, and reasonable fares that you can buy on a one-way basis.

Not as exciting as picking this year's pennant winners, I admit. But I'm a Cleveland Indians fan. Why would you listen to anything I said about baseball?

The Fine Print…
There has been a notable court decision in the 13-year war between Los Angeles Airport and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The Hare Krishnas have been fighting a 1997 Los Angeles city ordinance that prohibits solicitations in the terminals, parking areas, and sidewalks adjacent to LAX. The case made its way all the way to the federal circuit court, which referred it back to California's top court. Last week, the California Supreme Court upheld Los Angeles' ordinance. Other California airports are now expected to adopt their own ban on solicitations.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.