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La Crosse airport officials hopes bigger planes boost passenger counts

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Passengers

Passengers at the La Crosse airport terminal.

There are fewer commercial passengers using the La Crosse Regional Airport, but the arrival of bigger airplanes offers the promise of reversing that trend.

Starting Aug. 16, American Airlines will serve La Crosse with Embraer E170 or E175 jets on flights to and from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The planes will have either 65 or 76 seats and include a first-class cabin.

Compared with current 50-seat regional jet aircraft, it’s a significant increase in available seats in the La Crosse market, airport director Ian Turner said.

“This is great news as American Airlines recognizes the demand in our local market for air service,” Turner said. “I encourage our local travelers to capitalize on this opportunity. Filling these additional seats is the best strategy to gain more flight options in the future.”

The airport schedules two flights per day to and from Chicago. Philippe Puech, American’s director of short-haul network planning, said the upgrade is a “direct response to customer demand.”

That’s good news for airport officials, who are dealing with a decline in passenger numbers. The June “enplanement” number was 5,012, compared to 9,269 in June 2019 and 8,547 in June 2021. The other five months of 2022 show smaller, but still notable, decreases.

“We’re below available seats prior to the pandemic by 2,000, which is significant,” Turner said. “There has been a drop in total passengers.”

Turner said it has been a difficult time for air travel everywhere since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020 and brought the industry to a nearly complete halt. Passenger demand quickly rebounded after the pandemic subsided, but airlines haven’t been able to hire enough pilots and support personnel.

The result, Turner said, is fewer flights with a higher percentage of seats filled. He said planes going through La Crosse are running at 89-94 percent capacity.

“We have a really healthy demand in the market right now,” he said. “I can’t recall any time when load factors have been this high. Demand is outpacing supply.”

The airport also has two flights per day to and from Minneapolis with Delta Airlines. Turner said those planes will remain at 50 seats.

La Crosse lost direct service to Detroit in January, but Turner doesn’t believe that significantly impacted passenger counts.

“A lot of people who were going to Detroit are now just going through Chicago or Minneapolis.” he said.

While commercial passenger traffic is down in La Crosse, Turner said overall traffic is up thanks to private aircraft. He said 2021 overall was the busiest year for the airport since 2015 and represents a 41% increase over 2019.

“That slice of it has come back really strong,” Turner said.

He said the airport, which is owned by the city of La Crosse, remains in excellent financial shape.

“Right now, the airport is fiscally sound and well-equipped to adapt to opportunities that may come our way,” Turner said. “That allows us to be aggressive in planning for our future, whatever that may be.”

La Crosse Tribune reporter Steve Rundio can be reached at steve.rundio@lee.net.

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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