Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Airlines Squeeze out Small Cities

Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Airlines Squeeze out Small Cities

Article excerpt

If you live in a small or midsize city in the United States, your air service choices have been diminishing, and that is not going to change.

Air travel has a lot of new realities: On a cheap coach fare, if you want a seat that isn't in the middle of a cramped row back by the toilets, you are probably going to have to pay extra. Your frequent flier mileage programs are losing value, especially at the lower elite levels. If you're flying internationally, you're probably flying an airline alliance and not a particular airline.

If you live in a small or midsize city in the United States, your air service choices have been diminishing -- and that is not going to change. If your local news outlets assure you that the city airport and municipal officials are spending money on studies to attract new air service, they are probably chasing ghosts.

"I don't know of any time in this racket when there have been more charlatans out there trying to sell snake oil to airports," said Michael Boyd, the president of Boyd Group International, an airline forecasting and consulting company. "It's like these airports are saying, 'We want to hope there's hope.' They can hire consultants, do studies, dangle money in front of airlines, try human sacrifice -- whatever. It's all well meaning, but you have got to tell them the truth upfront."

The truth is that with bankruptcies, mergers and consolidations, the United States is down to four airlines with widespread nationwide service -- American, Delta, United and Southwest -- and five carriers with more limited route systems: Alaska, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier and Virgin America.

Here and there, some communities can claim success in attracting a new route or two, usually by paying an airline to operate it for a specified period. JetBlue and Southwest are often sought out by local airports hoping to lure a carrier with incentives in the hope that the route will prove itself financially.

Tucson International Airport is among those hoping to provide incentives for airlines to fill the holes in nonstop long-distance routes that were created when carriers -- invoking what they call "capacity discipline" -- started reducing flights and routes about four years ago.

"The nation's small and medium-sized airports have been disproportionately affected by these reductions in service, and recent airline behavior appears to signal a trend toward consolidation of service at the largest airports, with fewer direct flights available from smaller airports," according to a report last May on market forces shaping community air service by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's International Center for Air Transportation. From 2007 to 2012, the 29 largest airports in the United States lost 8.8 percent of flights, while the rest lost 21. …

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