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Air travel slump expected to affect Queens’ economy

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As soaring fuel oil prices weigh down the global airline industry, fewer flights could affect the borough's economy this summer and Queens' business experts are urging companies to redirect their focus to customers close to home.

Jack Friedman, executive vice president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said this summer is expected to be tough for big and small enterprises all over the city due to the negative outlook for the airline industry. The borough could be the hardest hit, according to the chamber, because its work force is closely connected to the county's two international airports.

"Everything that's associated with an airport, it's going to have a domino effect, " he said. "That's less hotels being booked, less restaurants being used, less taxicabs, less car rental companies being used, etc."

The factors that are leading to the decline in the air travel sector are the surging cost of jet fuel, American Airlines' announcement that it would cut 1,000 jobs and pare down the number flights at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports and rising air fares, according to Friedman.

JetBlue, based in Forest Hills, recorded an $8 million loss in the first quarter of 2008 and delayed the purchase of new planes to cut costs.

Although the airline industry's problems do not show any signs of letting up, the chamber executive suggested that Queens' businesses look into promoting their services to residents within the borough who plan to stay home.

"If they're not going on vacation, then we have to point them in the direction of the venues in Queens to get them going," Friedman said. "They don't have to travel to Boston or the Poconos for a good vacation."

The "stay-cations" would not only ease the economic void left by tourists, he said, but it would also promote the borough's features to people with the city. The Chamber of Commerce is set to meet with Borough President Helen Marshall soon to discuss how to handle the airline situation.

Marshall's office said it was concerned about the weak airline market and its effect on Queens, but was confident that the cutback in flights and fewer airline jobs would not seriously derail the borough's economy. Dan Andrews, Marshall's spokesman, said the borough would have many other strong revenue sources this summer, such as Mets baseball games and the U. S. Open, that will keep Queens strong financially.

"I think the dust is still settling. I don't think the effect here is immediately going to be felt," Andrews said.

Jobs related to the airports are the borough's second largest employment sector in as both airports generate nearly $10 billion in total annual wages and contribute more than $28 billion in economic activity and sales to the city, according to the Port Authority.

In addition to the Chamber of Commerce, Andrews said his office would be working diligently with its aviation advisory council to find ways to plan against the airline troubles and will be meeting with the new Port Authority head, Chris Ward.

"When flights are scaled back, there is a great concern about the future of a great many jobs," he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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