Airport Hubs Become Busier As Airlines Cut Costs

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study underlines the extent to which airlines have cut back service, especially at smaller airports, in order to return to profitability.

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Airlines are squeezing more people into fewer planes these days. If you're flying out of a small or midsized airport, it's harder to get a flight and you might pay more. A new report puts some numbers on those trends. NPR's Wendy Kaufman has the details.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Overall, between 2007 and 2012, U.S. airlines cut the number of domestic flights by 14 percent. But those cuts affected airports very differently. What's happening in the San Francisco Bay Area is typical of major metropolitan regions. William Swelbar, an airline industry researcher at MIT who co-authored the new study, says over the past five years, traffic at San Francisco International increased by more than 20 percent.

WILLIAM SWELBAR: But service has decreased in a significant way at other airports in the Bay Area, Oakland and San Jose, and that is the type of trend that we're beginning to see across the United States where airports compete with one another that traffic and capacity is consolidating around one primary airport.

KAUFMAN: And if you're looking for airline exhibit A on this topic, Swelbar says look at Southwest. The airline is now 40 years old and no longer behaves like an upstart. It's doing the same thing the older so-called legacy carriers are doing.

SWELBAR: Southwest is focused on large metro areas for the first time. They're now flying to Boston Logan, whereas before, they tended to serve the Boston metropolitan area through Manchester and Providence.

KAUFMAN: For airlines, the consolidation was prompted in large part by the huge spike in the price of oil in mid-2008. Airlines became much more focused on controlling costs, and it's more efficient and less expensive to operate out of fewer airports. That may not be surprising, but Swelbar says he was surprised by something else the study revealed. Very few airports lost all their air service. Many small and midsized airports are getting quieter but have not gone completely dark. That's not particularly reassuring to Roger Cohen, head of the Regional Airline Association.

ROGER COHEN: In today's global economy, the only two things that a community must have, must have are an Internet connection and scheduled air service.

KAUFMAN: Many employers and employees want easy access to other places. In Boise, Idaho, for example, tech companies say potential recruits are turned off by the small number and high price of flights there. Some communities and some business groups are now offering incentives to airlines to stay or come into their region. Things like waiving airport gate fees and offering advertising and marketing help. But Cohen says that won't solve a huge looming problem.

Regional airlines provide the only air service to three quarters of the nation's airports, and a new federal rule that goes into effect in August requires that all commercial pilots have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours.

COHEN: There just aren't enough qualified individuals with that arbitrary number of hours to be able to fly the full schedule.

KAUFMAN: Cohen says that means even fewer flights to smaller airports. We should note one final statistic that travelers might find interesting. Overall, after adjusting for inflation, the average price of an airline ticket has gone up only 4 percent since 2007. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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