Despite record amounts of tourists flocking to Central Florida, the number of passengers flying in and out of Orlando International Airport is falling for the second year in a row, as more visitors opt to drive here.
The count through July this year is down more than 361,000 passengers, or 1.7 percent, from the same time in 2012, airport records show. The 2012 total represented a decrease of almost 138,000 passengers over 2011, or 0.4 percent.
Airport officials are confident the numbers are aberrations and that the next two decades promise steady growth of anywhere from 2.2 percent to 3.4 percent annually.
“We’re optimistic,” said spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell, noting that improvements and additions at theme parks, new hotels and the imminent opening of a veterans’ hospital will spur more people to use the airport. “That activity should stimulate traffic growth.”
But right now, Orlando’s more typical visitor is a motorist rather than a flier — someone such as Joey Thacker, who opted to drive down from Atlanta for his recent Walt Disney World vacation.
“It’s a straight shot from Atlanta, and I have three boys, and I’d just as soon drive,” Thacker said. “We’re going to be going to Disney and everything, and we just want our vehicle here.”
Travel experts say people considering short flights must weigh the hassle of an airport — arriving early, passing through security, the possibility of a delayed flight, renting a car — versus jumping in their own vehicle and driving.
“Those kind of routes, people make that calculation: Is my three- to four-hour drive or the flight worthwhile?” said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, a website that tracks airfares.
In addition, travelers to Orlando are largely tourists. Though 46 percent of overnight business travelers fly, only 26 percent of overnight leisure travelers do so, according to Visit Orlando.
The decline in passengers comes at a critical time for the airport, where top officials have talked of spending $2.1 billion on a new terminal for international travelers, a 3,500-spot parking garage and a depot that would serve trains linking Central and South Florida.
Airport executives say a new terminal could take five years to complete. The train stop and garage could be open in 2015. If work does not begin soon, they say, the existing terminal could be swamped with passengers, resulting in poor service and a bad name in the travel community by as early as 2017, but more likely 2019.
Fennell said the drop in passengers was due largely to cutbacks in flights by Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, which Southwest purchased two years ago. Southwest is the airport’s largest carrier; AirTran is No. 4, behind JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines, respectively.
Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said most of her airline’s reductions were the result of eliminating flights between Orlando and other Florida cities.
“Plain and simple,” she said in an email to the Orlando Sentinel, “we have to fly routes that are profitable for us, and high fuel prices are making that tough.”
Agnew said Southwest would increase flights to cities it already serves as early as February because that is the peak travel season in Central Florida.
Seaney said that, in general, airlines have cut the number of seats they offer to U.S. destinations.
Orlando’s tourist count, meanwhile, has set records during the past three years, hitting 57 million in 2012.
But even as the number of visitors has climbed, airline traffic has not kept pace with Orlando’s hotel demand, according to Daryl Cronk, director of research for Visit Orlando.
After dipping sharply in 2009, demand for hotel rooms in the Orlando area returned to pre-recession levels in early 2011. But the number of air travelers to Orlando International in 2012 remains nearly 1.2 million below its pre-recession high of 36.4 million in 2007.
The reason is that the area’s economic recovery has been fueled disproportionately by tourists, who are less likely to fly.
And as the state’s economy has struggled in recent years, Orlando has also attracted more in-state visitors who are looking to stay close to home with an economical vacation. Just 1 percent of in-state visitors fly to Orlando.
Other major airports in Florida have fared better. Passenger traffic was up 2.9 percent last year at Miami International Airport, and traffic rose 0.9 percent in Fort Lauderdale, according to the Airports Council International, a trade group representing airports.
But even among out-of-state tourists who come to Orlando, more are opting to drive rather than fly. Visit Orlando estimates that 49 percent of out-of-state tourists flew to Orlando in 2010. By 2012, that had fallen to 42 percent.
One possible reason? Rising airfare costs, especially given that Orlando is a family market.
“We’re not talking about one or two tickets for a couple. You’re talking about four or five tickets for a family,” Cronk said.