Overseas Travelers Set Record for City’s Airports

Despite the hard economic times around the world, New York City was more popular than ever for international travelers last year, according to statistics compiled by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In 2010, international airlines carried a record number of passengers — almost 35.4 million — through the metropolitan area’s three major airports, the statistics show. The previous high was 34.9 million passengers in 2008.

The gain, which came despite a hefty increase in average fares, was driven by a rise of nearly 15 percent in travelers to and from Asia, and of 9 percent to and from Central and South America.

Many visitors were lured by a weak dollar that bolstered the spending power of their currencies. But city officials also credit recent efforts to promote the city overseas.

Robert K. Steel, the deputy mayor for economic development, has said that those promotions helped the city attract a record number of tourists in 2010. “We’ve put in place a series of global marketing programs to showcase New York City and attract visitors, and it’s clear that those efforts continue to pay off,” Mr. Steel said at a news conference last month.

The upsurge in international travel accounted for almost the entire increase in activity at the airports last year. The total number of passengers rose 2.1 percent, to just shy of 104 million in 2010.

That was only the fourth-highest level of annual activity. Traffic through the airports peaked in 2007, before the recession took hold. The airports served more than 110 million passengers that year, but traffic declined in each of the next two years, dropping more than 7 percent, to fewer than 102 million passengers in 2009.

The numbers also reflected the shifting competitive landscape among the airlines that serve the city. Delta, which has been expanding its presence in New York since it acquired Northwest Airlines in 2008, now ranks second in the region, behind Continental. Continental, which has been the dominant carrier at Newark Liberty International, is in the process of merging with United.

That industry consolidation could spell rising fares for travelers who use these airports. But new competition has arrived in the form of Southwest Airlines, which has been the most efficient of the domestic airlines. Southwest arrived at La Guardia Airport in Queens in 2008 and, after acquiring AirTran Airways, expects to carry two million passengers through La Guardia this year.

The moves by Delta and Southwest pushed the count of domestic passengers at La Guardia above the total for Newark Liberty last year — the first time that had happened in a decade. Kennedy International Airport, the busiest of the three, handled slightly more domestic travelers than La Guardia, about 23.4 million.

But La Guardia’s second-place ranking may be short-lived: Southwest is scheduled to bring its low-fare operation to Newark Liberty in late March.

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