ATA's domestic stats don't tell the whole story

Numbers don't lie -- leave that to the people who misuse and manipulate them to their own ends -- but they can be misleading when they only reveal part of the picture.

Consider the Air Transport Association's monthly report on passenger traffic on its member airlines, which account for more than 90% of the traffic on U.S. carriers. The latest monthly report also includes the totals for all of 2006.

The numbers show how much the major airlines have been growing their international service. For example, the airlines put nearly 5% more capacity on international routes in 2006 than they did in 2005. ATA members added the most international capacity, 8.6%, on Atlantic routes.

The figures for domestic traffic, however, are trickier to decipher and may be just as notable for what's missing.

The numbers show significant to dramatic declines in domestic departures, enplanements and capacity, especially when compared with 2000.

But the figures do not include service by regional affiliates. That didn't matter much in the past.

But most major U.S. airlines have been shifting their domestic capacity to those affiliates in recent years to better match aircraft size to demand and concentrate more on international service.

The number of domestic passengers on U.S. regional carriers nearly doubled from 2000 to 2005, and the amount of traffic on them, as measured by revenue passenger miles, nearly tripled, according to government statistics.

That's why the ATA figures seem to show that domestic airline scheduled service still has not returned to 2000 levels, while more complete but less timely government figures show the service actually returned to or passed 2000 levels by 2004 or 2005, depending on which measurement is used.

The more complete annual and monthly U.S. airline traffic information available from the government, and more specifically its Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is one reason why the ATA has decided to stop publishing its monthly traffic figures after its next report covering service in January.

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