Smaller cities in airline squeeze

Published: Thursday, May. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6B

It took Josh Hunter three separate planes, two connections and a two-hour drive to get from Mobile, Ala., to Cincinnati at Easter. When he added it all up, his 720-mile trip had lasted 12 hours – the same it would have taken him to drive.

"The whole point of flying should be to save a lot of time, and I didn't," Hunter said.

For anyone trying to fly between the smaller cities in the United States, it's not easy to get from here to there anymore.

The major airlines have been paring service for much of the last decade. But their cutbacks accelerated three years ago as carriers merged, fuel prices spiked and the recession reduced demand for seats. Even after the economy started to recover and passengers came back, the big airlines did not restore many of their flights, particularly on routes to small airports, as they sought to bolster their profits.

The strategy has squeezed the regional airlines, whose purpose is to ferry passengers on behalf of the major airlines and provide the backbone of air service to the nation's small airports. Three regional carriers have filed for bankruptcy protection since 2010, including Pinnacle Airlines in April.

So while airports in large metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago and Atlanta have emerged relatively unscathed from these changes, the smaller cities have borne the brunt.

From 2006 to 2011, the nation's top 25 airports lost 4 percent of their nonstop domestic capacity, according to Jeffrey Breen, the president and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group. In that same period, the next 25 airports, among them Oakland and Kansas City, Mo., lost 13 percent. At the next 50 airports – places like Tulsa, Okla.; Providence, R.I., and Reno – the drop in direct service was even steeper, 15 percent. Smaller airports, like the one in Flint, Mich., have fared even worse, down 19 percent.

"We are all in the same boat here; most airports have lost nonstop capacity in the last five years," Breen said. "But the smaller airports are really the ones that have taken it on the chin the most. It's been a perfect storm for them." The result is that travelers now face more complicated itineraries, often involving a connection at a big hub airport, and trips that used to take two or three hours can now stretch all day.

Sacramento International Airport is among the airports that has lost flights in the past five years during the peak of the airline recession, officials said. Flight numbers were not available Wednesday, but passenger numbers were off 17 percent in 2011 from the airport's peak service year in 2007.

Airport Director Hardy Acree said Sacramento has not lost any transcontinental flights, but has seen airlines reduce frequencies of flights, notably in the intra-California market, which Acree described as the airport's "bread and butter."

Acree said many midsize "hub airports" such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and St. Louis have lost flights due to airline mergers. Sacramento is an "origination and destination" airport, where travelers are more used to having to switch flights to get to the other coast.

Fares in the smaller cities have also risen the most. Ticket prices out of Bellingham, Wash.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Fort Myers, Fla., for instance, jumped 16-18 percent from the third quarter of 2010 to the third quarter of 2011, while the average nationwide increase was 6 percent, according to the latest data compiled by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The three most expensive airports to fly from? Cincinnati (where the average ticket price was $488 in the third quarter); Huntsville, Ala. (average price $473); and Memphis, Tenn. ($472). The nationwide average ticket price was $362. (And none of this includes extra fees for checked bags or seats with extra legroom, which have also been rising in recent years.)

The economics of the airline industry have also changed in recent years. High fuel prices have made it nearly impossible for new airlines to muscle their way into the business by slashing prices and offering service to airports that were overlooked by major carriers – as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways once did.

Don Bornhorst, the senior vice president of Delta Connection, the regional service owned by Delta Air Lines, said many markets did not have enough passengers to justify the flights. Delta recently canceled its two daily flights from Sioux City, Iowa, to its hub in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

He noted that the big airlines had also cut back service to their midsize hubs, like Memphis and Cincinnati, to concentrate on the bigger ones, like Atlanta.

"With the industry consolidation, the need for the smaller regional jets flying to the number of smaller regional hubs has gone down," Bornhorst said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jad Mouawad



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