U.S. airline group sees pickup in summer air passengers


More people will likely fly this summer compared with a year ago as U.S. airlines gain a record level of international passengers, an industry association said on Thursday.

Airlines for America, the top U.S. airline industry group, forecast that close to 209 million people will fly on the nation's carriers from June through August, up 1 percent from a year ago. That outlook includes 27 million international travelers, a record number, the group said on Thursday.

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"Our carriers' international competitiveness and their ability to tap emerging markets, where GDP growth rate is outpacing the U.S. or outpacing some of the European countries, is really what it's all about," said John Heimlich, chief economist at Airlines for America.

The summer is seasonally a strong period for airlines as people take vacations. This week, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines said revenue trends were improving for May after softness in March and April.

Staff furloughs at U.S. air traffic control towers during a week in April caused flight delays at some airports.

Airlines for America estimated that the furloughs disrupted about 7,200 flights over the six days they were in place, affecting travel for 600,000 passengers and costing U.S. airlines about $50 million in lost revenue and other expenses. The staff cuts were suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration after passage of legislation allowing the agency to shift money within its budget to end them.

The industry group said air travel was being aided by lower energy prices, increased corporate profits and higher household net worth.

The expected number of flying passengers this year would mark the highest number of summer air travelers for U.S. airlines since 2008, when more than 210 million flew. U.S. carriers had their highest number of flying passengers ever during the summer of 2007, at more than 217 million, the industry group said.

The group also said U.S. airlines as a whole improved their financial performance in the first quarter. Ten publicly traded airlines tracked by the group had a combined loss of $552 million in the period, compared with a loss of $1.7 billion a year earlier. Revenue for the group rose 2.5 percent in the first quarter to $34.3 billion.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Marguerita Choy)