Only two-thirds fly from area via Miami International Airport, far less than in past
By Risa Polansky
When it comes to South Florida air traffic, Miami International handled the majority of passengers departing from the region last fiscal year — but not by a tremendous margin, and not by as much as years ago.
In looking at the number of passengers who flew out of Miami International and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International last year, about 65% used MIA, according to Miami-Dade Aviation data that also list Broward County Aviation as a source.
Peak for the past 20 years was in 1995, when nearly 80% of South Florida departing passengers used MIA.
The low was in 2005, when the total dipped below 60%.
Miami International serves a clear majority of South Florida's international travelers — nearly 8 million international departing passengers in fiscal 2009 compared to Fort Lauderdale's 1.5 million, airport data show.
Peak since 1998 was in fiscal 2000, when Miami saw just over 8 million international departing passengers and Fort Lauderdale less than a million.
When it comes to domestic departure passenger counts, the airports were about even in fiscal 2009 with about 9 million each, the data show.
Miami's peak over the past almost decade was in 1998, when the airport handled more than 9 million departing domestic passengers compared to Fort Lauderdale's under 6 million.
Miami held the top spot for four years until 2002, when the airports were dead even with just under 8 million domestic departing passengers each.
For the next six years — up until last year — Fort Lauderdale overshadowed Miami in the domestic realm.
At peak in 2005, the Broward airport saw more than 10 million domestic departing passengers, while Miami's total sat at just over 8 million.
Locals and tourists alike often compare the airports, with inbound and outbound travelers weighing proximity to their final destination, availability of flights and fare prices.
Fort Lauderdale has become known for its low-cost flight options, while Miami is widely recognized as an international hub.
Online travel sites note differences between the airports.
"Miami International Airport handles flights to cities throughout the Americas and Europe, and is South Florida's main airport for long-haul international flights, although most domestic and low-cost carriers use Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which charges significantly lower fees to tenant airlines," according to miamiairport411.com, a travel company not affiliated with the airports.
A comparison of the two airports on About.com lists as a negative for Miami: "Served by few discount carriers," and as a positive for Fort Lauderdale, "Served by several discount operators such as JetBlue and Spirit, which offer bargain fares."
Pros for Miami include "served by all major airlines" and "direct flights offered from most major cities," while "served by a smaller number of airlines" and "fewer direct flights available" are listed as cons for the Fort Lauderdale airport on the site.
Today, MIA handles three low-cost carriers: AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines and WestJet, Canada's largest low-cost carrier.
The Broward airport boasts five: AirTran Airways, JetBlue, Midwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines, headquartered in Miramar.
With an end in sight for construction at Miami International, officials are mulling a potential business model switch that could attract more low-cost carriers, though the aim isn't to develop a discount-carrier hub.
Miami-Dade Aviation Director José Abreu said the airport could use a better mix but
"I don't know that this will ever be a low-cost carrier airport…. First class and business class is big business for us."
Some discount carriers don't offer premium seating.
The average one-way ticket out of Fort Lauderdale is about $40 cheaper than out of Miami, Mr. Abreu said. But "the $40 difference is not apples to apples because the $40 reflects a higher average that you would pay for first class."
Also, the Miami airport's infrastructure for its abundant international service is more costly.
While officials are looking at potentially offering different gate rental and payment structures that could attract more low-cost carriers to Miami International, the airport is also struggling to cut its costs and raise revenues, projecting $500 million in new annual costs beginning in 2015 because of a rise in debt service payments and growing operations expenses.
Airlines could be affected, because their fees fill gaps between revenue and expenditures in Miami-Dade Aviation's budget.