Led by low-cost carriers JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit, the airlines at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have set consecutive records for departing and arriving passengers in each of the last five years. Passenger traffic peaked last year near 36 million – an increase of about 10 million over the last four years. Indeed, the passenger count has been growing faster at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International than at the main airports in Miami and West Palm Beach. Why? Follow the money.
Domestic air fares in 2017 averaged $240 at the Fort Lauderdale airport, compared to $317 at Miami International Airport and $326 at Palm Beach International Airport, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
As 2019 began, possible obstacles to another record-setting year in passenger traffic included the partial shutdown of the federal government and the planned summer shutdown of one of two runways at the airport.
Nevertheless, sheer momentum may nudge passenger traffic even higher this year. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International was the fastest-growing hub airport in North America in terms of available seats on departing flights. The number increased in a recent 12-month period by 11 percent, or two million seats, according to OAG, a flight information provider. OAG also reported that low-cost carriers drove the increase in available seats at the airport, where JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit together account for two-thirds of seats on departing flights.
Attracting ever-more passengers comes at a price, of course. Billions of dollars of upgrades to the airport’s infrastructure, including modernized terminal space and expanded airfield capacity, have added to the annual cost of running “FLL” (the airport’s official International Air Transport Association airport code). And more big-ticket improvements are planned. For example, the airport’s administration has been working on a master-plan update that envisions the development of an elevated, automated, circulating tram system to shuttle people between on-site parking garages and airport terminal buildings.
Yet FLL has operating costs and airline fees that remain well below those of rival Miami International Airport. “It’s a pretty sizable advantage,” says Jason Annunziata, director of operations at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International for JetBlue, the busiest airline at FLL.
At the Fort Lauderdale airport, “it’s not just the airlines that are low-cost” but also the airport itself, Annunziata says. “Fort Lauderdale always has been important to JetBlue. It was actually the first destination for JetBlue out of JFK, the first revenue flight,” on February 11, 2000.
The airport’s operating cost per departing passenger, or cost per enplanement (CPE), has been $5 to $8 in recent years. It “will rise measurably in the near term with new debt, potentially reaching over $13,” bond rating agency Fitch Ratings reported earlier this year. “But it is balanced by FLL’s strong position relative to other South Florida airports and the expectation of continued performance and growth.”
By comparison, the cost per departing passenger at Miami International Airport “is close to $20,” says Fitch analyst Seth Lehman. Thanks largely to its cost advantage, FLL handles more than 50 percent of the passengers on domestic flights that start or end in tri-county South Florida.
But keeping costs low hasn’t meant scrimping on improvements aimed at passengers. Terminal-building renovations have enhanced the passenger experience. “When you go through facilities that are open and there’s more light, it just makes you feel better,” says Matt Klein, Spirit’s senior vice president and chief commercial officer. “And those are the kinds of things that have happened in Terminal 4 on the airside of the gate area.”
Spirit’s passenger count at FLL rose 13 percent last year from the count in 2017, and the airline expects further growth in passenger traffic this year despite the planned runway shutdown. “In 2019, we’re expecting somewhere between 10 and 15 percent growth for the year,” Klein says, and new destinations were expected to drive the growth. Spirit was scheduled to start flying from FLL to Jacksonville and Austin, Texas in February, and to Raleigh, North Carolina in May.
Among other low-cost carriers with a lot at stake in South Florida, Allegiant Air has added to its seating capacity on flights departing the Fort Lauderdale airport. Allegiant’s capacity out of FLL rose 11 percent from 2017 to 2018. In January, the Las Vegas-based airline was still planning its 2019 capacity plan for service from FLL. An active intrastate operator, Allegiant flies from FLL to 17 destinations that include the Orlando area, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Punta Gorda and Sarasota.
Allegiant flies to about 120 domestic airports and has locally based aircraft and crews available at 15 of them, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, where the airline operates in renovated space in Terminal 1. “We’re quite pleased with Terminal 1,” says Dustin Call, Allegiant’s director of airport affairs.
“Most of the construction is done in our part of the airport. There is still other work being done to other terminals,” Call says. “During the construction, all of the airlines had to make what I call operational sacrifices, but the airport was very supportive.”
That’s not where the sacrifice stops for air carriers. In their payments to use the airport’s facilities, airlines at FLL also cover repayments of debt issued to finance costly upgrades to airside and landside facilities.
But certain carriers also have a say in how the airport evolves. Allegiant and other airlines with long-term lease and use agreements to operate at FLL are so-called
“signatory airlines,” a status that entitles them to vote on some airport projects and advise the Broward County Aviation Department on others.
Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and other low-cost carriers with signatory status “all have a similar mentality to us as far as low costs go,” Call says. “We’re pretty aligned internally with those folks on these votes. There’s very little conflict or contention.”
More major airport projects are coming up for discussion. An update to the airport’s master development plan is expected to be submitted for approval by the Broward County Commission soon.
A key feature of the master plan is a circulating tram that would move people between parking garages and terminal buildings – and reduce pedestrian congestion on the roadway between the garages and the terminals. Such automated people mover systems already are in place at three of Florida’s four busiest airports: Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and Tampa International Airport.
Mark Gale, the airport’s CEO and director of aviation, says an automated people mover system would mitigate a major problem at FLL. “The most troubling aspect of our airport operation – I sometimes refer to it as our Achilles heel – is our landside roadway management piece,” he says. “There’s a lot of traffic.”
The airport master plan for the next 20 to 30 years also could produce a transit center just east of the airport on U.S. 1 where an airport tram might link with another tram dedicated to shuttling cruise passengers between FLL and nearby Port Everglades.
The master plan for the airport might even encompass a nearby link to Brightline, the passenger train service between downtown stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. “We’ve been in discussions with Brightline now for two years about the potential of construction of a station right off the east end of the airport,” Gale says.
Blessed with a high credit rating, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport would borrow in the bond market to finance some of the major projects it is planning. In a January 15 report, bond rating agency Fitch Ratings issued an A+ rating for $1.3 billion of outstanding bonds secured by FLL revenue.
In the short term however, JetBlue and other airlines may operate fewer flights at the Fort Lauderdale airport this year due to the planned reconstruction of the north runway from June to October. The rehab work will put all airfield traffic on the south runway during the storm-prone months of summer, which will limit airline operations.
The Broward County Aviation Department has forecast one million fewer passengers this year on departing flights than would have been the case with two runways – or 17 million enplaned passengers, 5 percent fewer than 18 million. Yet FLL passenger traffic could be solid if not record-setting this year, despite plans to operate with just one runway during summer.
Despite the planned runway closure, some airlines may hold their FLL seating capacity steady by offering fewer flights but flying larger jets. “You won’t necessarily see a reduction in customers,” Annunziata says. “I think you might see a reduction in [flight] frequency.”
Gale, the airport CEO, says the forecast of one million fewer departing passengers in 2019 due to the north-runway project was a conservative estimate. “We’re not sure that’s actually going to materialize. We think that we might do much better than that,” he says. One reason for his optimism is the county aviation department’s successful effort to encourage airlines to move some of their FLL flight operations to off-peak hours while the runway reconstruction is underway.
The airport previously operated with one runway during the extension of the south runway over U.S. 1, a 20-month project completed in 2014. FLL had a 0.04 percent dip in passenger traffic in 2013, which was the last year that number declined from the year before.
Who’s on time at FLL?
On-time performance at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport could take a hit from the planned summer shutdown of the north runway. There was slight improvement last year; 21.7 percent of total flights were late, down from 22.7 percent in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
JetBlue had the worst on-time performance among airlines operating at FLL last year. Nearly one-third of JetBlue flights in 2018 were late. Most JetBlue flights out of FLL are bound for three airports in the Northeast – Newark Liberty International Airport and the LaGuardia and Kennedy airports in New York City – where ground delays often delay departures in South Florida.
Among the three leading carriers at FLL, Miramar-based Spirit Airlines had the best on-time performance last year, when 17.2 percent of Spirit’s flights were late. Other airlines with comparable percentages of late FLL flights include American Airlines (15.5 percent), Delta Air Lines (14.5 percent) and United Airlines (16.9 percent).
The Department of Transportation reported that 11 percent of all flights in the Spirit system were late in October 2018, which ranked as the best on-time performance by a U.S. airline. It was a remarkable reversal by an airline that once ranked among the worst in on-time performance.
Among other on-time initiatives, Spirit reengineered its ticket counter area at FLL to install self-check-in kiosks. Among other features available to kiosk users, “they actually print out the bag tags for the guests to apply to their bags themselves,” says Matt Klein, Spirit’s senior vice president and chief commercial officer. Using the kiosks is optional. “They don’t have to if they don’t want to, but it definitely is a faster experience. … If you need or require more full service, we clearly have that now. It’s just that those lines are shorter now, because most people don’t need that kind of service.”
Security concerns have guided efforts at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to ensure that airport employees are prepared for the type of tragedy that unfolded January 6, 2017, when a gunman started shooting in the Terminal 2 baggage-claim area, killing five airline passengers and wounding others. First responders quickly subdued the gunman. But about 90 minutes after the shooting incident, rumors of additional shots fired led thousands of panicked passengers to run out of terminal buildings.
The Broward County Aviation Department arranged for an independent consultant to analyze the shooting incident, and based on the consultant’s report, the Broward County Commission required training for all 17,000 people who work at FLL to deal with an active-shooter situation.
In response, the county aviation department developed a seven-module online training session that takes three hours to complete and features videos of various areas of FLL and employees who work there.
Airports in cities across the country train employees to respond to an active-shooter situation with videos in non-airport settings “that come from other cities, and that was the case with our airport,” says Mark Gale, FLL’s CEO and aviation director. “But we wanted something that was very site-specific to our airport … So, we have put together what we believe is the only training program of its kind in the nation. I’ve gone around to different airports and talked about this. It’s what we refer to as our Airport Employee Emergency Training, or AEET.”
Gale says the training has a big emphasis on crowd control in the aftermath of a shooting incident: “The thing we’re focused on is that while we handle the incident, we want to stop the triggering of a panic, if at all possible, so that we don’t have thousands upon thousands of people running onto the airfield.”