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Port Columbus touts record numbers; Skybus part of the reason

Thrusday Skybus announced new service to New York City. The news comes as Port Columbus International Airport reports record passengers. More than 100,000 people used Port Columbus in September - propelling the airport to its busiest third quarter ever. And Skybus is a big reason for the increase in passenger traffic.

Skybus Airlines passengers check in and drop off their luggage at Port Columbus International Airport Wednesday afternoon.

It's the same day the airport announced record-breaking numbers for its third quarter. So far this year more than five-and-a-half million people have traveled through Port Columbus - that's a 15-and-a-half percent increase over last year's figures.

But with oil costing more than $90 a barrel and airlines, like Delta, recovering from bankruptcy how is Port Columbus doing so well?

David Beckerman works at OAG BACK Aviation Solutions - an airline consultant company. Beckerman said the new low-fare airline Skybus that took off in the spring is part of the reason for Port Columbus' success.

"By September you'd see the net effects of their flying over the summer helping to attract more passengers to Port Columbus. And at the same time as the airport gets better known the other carriers that serve the airport, the incumbent carriers, also see some benefits," Beckerman said.

Beckerman said airports with low-fare carriers like Skybus, JetBlue and Southwest tend to increase traffic from other cities or states.

"It might attract someone from as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, particularly if they're traveling a long distance. If they're traveling to the west coast like Oakland or Los Angeles, which is serviced by Burbank, you could see a person say hey I'll drive up to Columbus because it's only, relatively in terms of my total trip time, a few hours to get up there and then I don't have to pay very much for the trip," Beckerman said.

Lonnie Sites and his family choose Skybus. Sites who is from La Rue said he could've flown out of Dayton. But he said the low fare he got at Skybus prompted him to come to Columbus.

"This was the better choice," Sites said.

Sites even got a non-stop flight to California.

"That's nice. No layovers," he said.

Spencer Clum from Spencerville, Ohio also chose to Columbus over other airports. He said he could've gone to Toledo, Dayton or Fort Wayne.

"There are other airports about equal distance but with Skybus being here - where we're going is Greensboro, North Carolina, Skybus goes there. So, it was the way to go. And was it because of the cheaper flights at Skybus? Absolutely," Clum said.

But not everyone is driving long distances to Columbus to fly Skybus. Steven Hardy Parkersburg, West Virginia said he was thinking about flying out of Charleston, West Virginia, but chose Columbus instead.

"It was a lot more economical to drive the extra hour than to spend the extra money that would've been spent to fly out of Charleston," Hardy said.

Port Columbus' David Whitaker said increased flights and seats are reasons for more people using the airport.

"We've had a lot of growth by Southwest, and of course we have new entrance, Skybus has been growing very rapidly providing new seats and destinations at competitive rates," Whitaker said.

Beckerman said at the same time Skybus began flights, Pittsburgh saw a decline in service. He says U.S. Airways has steadily pulled back flights from Pittsburgh, and he said that could be another reason for the increased traffic at Port Columbus.

"That means if people are looking for a gateway to fly from and they live in Southeast Ohio they may have previously used Pittsburgh and now they're choosing to use Columbus. Possibly because of the low fares as I mentioned, but they may also be going on one of the traditional carriers simply because the service is better," Beckerman said.

Jo Ann Jenny is a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh International Airport. Jenny said traffic is down. But she blames the decline on flight cuts by U.S. Airways at its Pittsburgh hub. "A lot of passengers would take off out of Cleveland or Columbus and that was more of an issue when our fares were really high. Now that our fares are more competitive we're not really losing as many passengers as we had in the past," Jenny said.

While Port Columbus might be pulling customers from surrounding airports the effects of that are still unknown. Akron-Canton's spokesperson Kristie Van Auken said while this year's numbers are pretty flat. She said between 2001 and 2006 the airport doubled its passenger traffic. Cleveland's passenger numbers are also flat.

But the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport saw a 23 percent increase in travelers from July to September of this year - even after Delta cut back a quarter of its flights. Ted Bushelman is the airport's spokesperson. He admits people do drive up from Cincinnati to fly out of Columbus. But Bushelman does not attribute that to low cost carriers. He said he does not think mid-westerners bank on low-fare airlines.

"I think people get a little leery sometime when they hear this carrier coming in and they wind up leaving, and then some, as you know, a number of low-cost carriers have gone bankrupt," Bushelman said.

But David Beckerman said low-cost airlines are not the only reason Port Columbus is doing well this year. He said Columbus has advantage over other cities.

"A city like Columbus benefits from the fact that it is a state capitol. Government needs to continue to run, people will have demand to major business destinations and of course to Washington, D.C. But there's also the very large student population, and a large university tends to have consistent travel and it does not wane as much during an economic downturn," Beckerman said.

But amid Port Columbus' good news, Jet Blue announced last week it is pulling service from the airport.