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August 26th, 2009 - Dean Anderson

Travelers trickling in and out of OKC

Just two years ago, Oklahoma City Director of Airports Mark Kranenburg\'s phone was, literally, lit up with additional gate requests from major airlines wanting to send planes in and out of OKC.

Just two years ago, Oklahoma City Director of Airports Mark Kranenburg's phone was, literally, lit up with additional gate requests from major airlines wanting to send planes in and out of OKC. At the same time, Brent Clark, owner and general manager of Travel Agents Inc., was busy sending people out of those gates to exotic destinations as fast as he could.

What a difference a couple of years makes.

Now, nearly a year into an economic downturn that has affected nearly every industry, Kranenburg has gates to spare, and Clark's staff is busy contacting past clients, reminding them Travel Agents Inc. is still in business.

"Right now, our industry as a whole is struggling," Clark says. "I don't like to force blame, but the economy has a lot to do with it. I think everyone right now is struggling, especially in our industry."

Heading into the third quarter, Clark says his family owned business - begun in 1984 by parents Gary and Patricia Clark - was down nearly 20% from a year ago.

But industry numbers began to slide even before the mortgage market did.

With the advent of do-it-yourself online sites such as Priceline, Travelocity and Orbitz, coupled with lower commissions from airlines, traditional travel agents have seen their market share decreasing the past few years.

To stem the tide, Travel Agents Inc. fired up a new software system around the first of the year designed to better service its customer base. Clark says his industry as a whole - which he expects will thin out considerably in coming months - will have to work smarter and harder to keep clients.

"We're going to have to get better at retaining our customers and expanding our client base any way we can," he says. "My dad told me years ago one of the best places to get business is where you've already gotten it. I think some of us lost sight of that. Now that the chips are down, we're all on the phone, updating databases and we're in communication with our customers. We want them to know that when they think of travel they give us a call."

Kranenburg's phone calls have slacked, too; and just like Clark, his customers aren't going many places, either.

"It's a function of high fuel prices in March of 2008 when gas and oil was $1.40 or better a barrel," Kranenburg says. "Lots of airlines cut capacity all across the country at all small, medium and large airports."

Analysts predicted that a drop in fuel prices coupled with the lower capacity would create a natural upswing for airlines this year. But with business travel still stagnant, that surge never materialized and the industry was still looking for a boost in the third quarter.

Compared to June 2008, landings were down more than 13% at Will Rogers World Airport this June, and more than 14,000 fewer passengers flew out of OKC, while 15,000 fewer passengers got off a plane at 7100 Terminal Drive.

"The big issue is we lost 15% of our daily flights and the corresponding seats that flew out daily on those flights," Kranenburg says. "Once we received all those cuts, everything has pretty much leveled out. Airlines are in a no-growth mode until the economy comes back. We're sort of holding on with everything we've got right now and trying to maintain it."

A future terminal expansion for an east concourse at Will Rogers is on hold, but renovations to the parking garage were expected to be completed in September, he says.

While Kranenburg is busy sprucing up, Clark and his staff are hunkering down for global changes in their industry.

"I think it's going to be more prolonged than we hope," Clark says. "This last round of the economic situation is not just a temporary deal, but it's permanently changed people's psyche. I think we may be on the verge of a fundamental change of social behavior. We will not be immune from that. People are going to watch their dollars more carefully, and I think value will play a larger part than it has before."

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