FRESNO — The number of travelers flying through Fresno Yosemite International Airport is approaching historic levels.
In the first three months of the year, domestic flights departing from the airport carried almost 133,000 passengers. That's 10 percent more than the first quarter of 2012, and over the past decade it's second to 2008, when 134,271 people flew from Fresno Yosemite in the first quarter.
"This really is a historic year," said Rhonda Jorn, the airport's marketing director. "Our airlines are doing well here in Fresno."
But there's a twist: the airport is posting these near-record numbers with almost 25 percent fewer flights than in 2008, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
How are fewer flights producing more passengers? Although airlines are providing fewer daily departures from Fresno, thus reducing travelers' options for departure times, they're using larger aircraft with more seats. "The airlines are increasing their capacity through rearranging seats on their planes, or getting rid of the 50-seat regional jets and going to larger 70-seat aircraft," Jorn said.
And a higher proportion of those seats have passengers in them. Overall, Fresno Yosemite International's load factor, the percentage of all seat miles that are occupied by paying passengers, in the first three months of this year was almost 78 percent, nearly two percentage points more than last year and higher than the first quarter of any year in more than a decade.
For all of 2012, domestic airlines carried more than 578,000 passengers on flights from Fresno.
Flights from Fresno to major airline hubs for East Coast connections are performing particularly well, Jorn said. American Airlines' flights to Dallas, United Airlines' service to Denver and Delta Air Lines' flights to Salt Lake City, she said, are all flying at more than 80 percent full; some routes, she added, are approaching 90 percent capacity.
Fresno Yosemite International has also been successful in attracting new service over the past year, most notably Allegiant Air's seasonal weekly flights to Honolulu using 223-seat Boeing 757 jets, the largest aircraft regularly flying into the airport. Allegiant began the service last summer, but cut back on flights in the fall. A similar fall hiatus is scheduled this year.
Also last summer, Alaska Airlines expanded its presence in Fresno to offer daily service to and from San Diego.
For the city-owned airport, independent of Fresno's general fund budget, more passengers aboard commercial flights means more money for airport operations. Airlines pay about $6 in fees to the airport for each passenger, Jorn said.
Not included in this year's travel figures are new flights by Frontier Airlines, which in May began offering three weekly round trips to Denver. Nor do the domestic travel statistics count international flights to Guadalajara, Mexico, by Volaris and Aero-mexico, which together flew nearly 60,000 passengers from Fresno in 2012.
The newest services are likely the biggest factor in the surge in passengers, said Craig Mungary, manager of River Park Travel in north Fresno.
"Hawaii and San Diego seem to be the markets where we've seen the biggest pent-up demand," Mungary said. "Having more flights is creating more economical flights and good value, and we're seeing a return to some of the demand we've seen in the past."