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Originally published March 26, 2014 at 6:04 AM | Page modified March 26, 2014 at 4:45 PM

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Smaller airports being left behind in era of fewer flights

Often it’s easier, cheaper, or even quicker, to drive a couple hours to a larger airport to connect to far-flung destinations.


The New York Times

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My son Chris is on a business trip in India this week, and his choice of how he got there from his home in Tucson, Ariz., underscores a reality in air service. More often these days, business travelers will choose to drive a few hours to a bigger airport because airline service is not as convenient at their local airport.

The reason, in my son’s case: Starting his trip at the Tucson airport would have meant leaving home at 9:30 a.m. for a connection on US Airways to Phoenix, to board a 9:15 p.m. nonstop to London on British Airways (connecting to Delhi). Instead, by driving the two hours from Tucson to the far bigger Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, he was able to leave home at 4:30 p.m.

That itinerary illustrates one aspect of what’s going on. Airlines have merged and cut routes and capacity while at the same time strengthening partnerships through giant global alliances and code shares — in which one partner airline actually flies the route, even though the ticket has been purchased on another partner airline. My son’s itinerary, for example, was booked as an American Airlines ticket, though his entire trip was flown on British Airways (but would have started out US Airways had he flown from Tucson).

British Airways and American both are in the Oneworld alliance, whose 13 members also include Cathay Pacific, Iberia, Qatar and Qantas. US Airways flights, as that airline completes its merger with American, will be within the Oneworld alliance starting Monday, when it departs Star Alliance, whose 28 members include United, Lufthansa, Singapore and Air China.

In short, while you still can get there from here, it’s becoming more complicated if you live in a midsize or smaller city, and even in some bigger cities that have fallen off airline hub networks.

“Tucson has excellent international access,” said Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an air travel consulting company. “You can fly to Chicago; you can fly to Los Angeles; you can fly to Denver; you can fly to Phoenix,” to board that long-haul nonstop to your international destination. Or if you live in Tucson, a midsize city where overall airline departures at Tucson International Airport were down about 10 percent last year, you might just opt to save time and trouble by driving to a big hub like Phoenix.

Across the country, cities where airline service has been reduced and long-haul nonstop routes eliminated in recent years are clamoring for new flights. Many dangle financial incentives in the hopes that an airline will add an extra flight or two to the local schedule. The justification they cite is that local airports are powerful economic engines, central to business development and a sense of civic pride.

On the other hand, airline executives in recent years have been singing in a chorus called “capacity discipline.” Long ago, they abandoned strategies based on increasing share in a given market in favor of hard-nosed seat, fleet and route cuts — while concentrating efforts on the most profitable routes, international long hauls. At the same time, once-robust (though financially chaotic) airline competition has been sharply reduced by bankruptcies, mergers and increased reliance on merging service in alliances and code shares.

As Boyd pointed out, there are now only four network carriers in the United States — American, Delta, United and Southwest — along with five “full-schedule, predominantly nonnetwork brands: Alaska, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier and Virgin America.”

Three of the major carriers fly within the three major worldwide alliances: American, United and Delta (which is among 20 members of Sky Team alliance, along with Air France, KLM, Korean and three airlines in China). Southwest, still digesting some routes from its 2011 acquisition of AirTran, is predominantly a domestic carrier. Including the other five, airlines in the United States all have clearly defined route strategies. They drop routes that don’t feed sufficiently into complex revenue models, and add routes, if at all, only after very careful evaluation.

For years, airplanes have been flying nearly full on most routes. The industry is firmly profitable and relatively stable. Unless there is a clear benefit to the bottom line, airlines aren’t looking for more places to fly, or looking to add flights from places they already serve, Boyd said.

Local airports that hope to use subsidies to lure more service “have to address themselves to the realities of the airline industry. And the reality is, it’s a shrinking industry,” he said.

Hope, of course, springs eternal. For example, Pittsburgh International Airport, still reeling from the effects of US Airways closing its huge hub there in 2004, is offering financial incentives and even looking for a new top executive in a major drive to entice new service. In 2009, with much of its international traffic gone, Pittsburgh offered $9 million in subsidies to persuade Delta Air Lines to begin a nonstop route to Paris. That service operates seasonally five days a week (this year starting April 27).

Does paying an airline to fly a route from your airport make long-term sense to a locality? In Tucson, which had nonstop service to New York till a few years ago, they’re hoping it does. “We’re the largest airport in the country in terms of the number of passengers who go to New York that doesn’t now have a nonstop flight to New York,” said David Hatfield, business development and marketing director at Tucson International Airport.

Next week, we’ll have a look at that frantic scramble at local airports to get more service in an industry that has no slack.



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