ATLANTA – With the airports in New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., closed to commercial traffic, airlines that serve the popular destinations face a loss of business while dealing with potential fuel shortages.
Daily jet fuel production nationwide has been cut 13 percent because of damage from the hurricane to Gulf Coast refineries, according to Jack Evans of the Air Transport Association (search).
"What it means is there is less fuel essentially," Evans said Wednesday. "Carriers are having to take measures to conserve fuel at airports where they are low and tanker in fuel when serving some destinations on the East Coast."
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (search), meanwhile, has reopened to allow humanitarian flights in and out during daylight hours, but officials are unsure when commercial service will resume there. Most of the airlines that serve the area have canceled their flights until next week.
The uncertainty has raised questions about the financial impact on the airlines that in particular serve that airport.
AMR Corp.'s (AMR) American Airlines flew a Boeing 757 into New Orleans on Tuesday, a flight that was quickly arranged once airline officials learned that a single runway at the airport had been cleared for landings. There was still no power — no runway lights, no navigation aids — so any flight had to take place during daylight.
The plane left Dallas-Fort Worth in mid-afternoon with 8,400 pounds of bottled water and nonperishable snacks. It brought back workers from American and other airlines and stranded passengers. Some brought pets.
"The airplane looked a bit like Noah's ark," said Tom Del Valle, American's vice president of airport operations, who was on the flight. "We had a lot of dogs and cats, a ferret, a parakeet and a squirrel."
Southwest Airlines (LUV) followed with a similar rescue mission on Wednesday, and executives of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) plan to fly to New Orleans on Thursday to deliver cots, generators and other items to help keep the airport running.
Officials said the New Orleans airport has no significant airfield damage and had no standing water in aircraft movement areas. The airport did sustain damage to its roofs, hangars and fencing. At the Gulfport airport, which is served by five airlines, there was some damage to the control tower and to AirTran's gate area, said Tad Hutcheson, an AirTran spokesman.
The flight cancellations and fuel problems come at a time when the major airlines, especially Delta, are already reeling.
"I think all of the airlines will feel this," said airline expert Terry Trippler, who runs a travel Web site cheapseats.com. "It's a little more than a blip, but New Orleans and Gulfport alone is not going to put Delta into bankruptcy. I think $70 a barrel oil is the straw that would break the camel's back."
The airlines that serve the area:
• Southwest Airlines has canceled all flights to New Orleans through Sept. 12.
• Delta (DAL) has canceled all flights into and out of the New Orleans and Gulfport airports through Monday, spokeswoman Chris Kelly said.
• American Airlines doesn't expect to resume scheduled flights there until next Tuesday at the earliest, according to spokesman Tim Smith
• Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. (CAL) and its Continental Express commuter service canceled 40 flights on Wednesday and a similar number for Thursday in and out of New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., said spokeswoman Julie King.
• United Airlines, a unit of Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based UAL Corp., is not planning to resume service to New Orleans until Monday afternoon. The airline, which does not fly to Gulfport, Miss., has 14 roundtrip flights per day to New Orleans.
• Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp. (NWAC) has suspended service into New Orleans and Gulfport. Spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch did not say when service to those airports would resume.
• Arlington, Va.-based US Airways Group Inc. has canceled service to and from New Orleans until at least Sept. 7. US Airways does not serve the Gulfport airport.
• Discount carrier AirTran Airways has shuttered its 18 daily flights to and from the two airports through at least Saturday.
Crude oil prices fell 87 cents Wednesday to close at $68.94 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after briefly trading as high as $70.65.
Delta shares fell 4 cents to close at $1.16 on the New York Stock Exchange. AMR shares fell 10 cents to finish at $12.59 on the NYSE, where Continental shares rose 12 cents to end at $13.37 and AirTran shares rose 13 cents to $10.33. Northwest shares rose 9 cents to close at $5.03 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.