July 13, 2024

Air Service Cutbacks Hit Hardest Where Recession Did

In the last five years, a review of government statistics shows, air service most often dropped at midsize airports and cities where jobs disappeared or housing prices collapsed. Las Vegas, Phoenix and Detroit, for instance, all lost flights in the 12 months that ended in March.

But traffic has risen at airports where the regional economies have fared better — Denver, San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C., among them.

As a result, the cutbacks are redrawing the nation’s air service map to reflect the industry’s new priorities and changed economics. As recently as a decade ago, the airlines put a premium on growth, competed on every possible route and sought to connect to even the farthest outposts. Now, they are emphasizing fiscal discipline, which means paring back service to many cities and forgoing unprofitable destinations altogether as higher fuel prices weigh on their bottom line.

“The airlines are shrinking and putting a premium on their core network,” said Jeffrey Breen, the founder and president of Cambridge Aviation Research, a consulting firm. “The bottom states have suffered most and have not kept up with the growth in the most robust airports in the country.”

Data collected by the Airport Council International, a trade group, found that the nation’s smallest airports lost 10 to 15 percent of their scheduled flights from June 2006 through this June. Medium-size airports, meanwhile, lost 18 percent of their scheduled flights. But the biggest airports fared relatively better; their traffic dropped by only 2.3 percent over that same five-year period.

The top 50 airports now represent more than 80 percent of all passenger departures, while the 200 smallest airports account for less than 3 percent of passengers.

“How much air service do we really need in Kalamazoo, Mich., or Terre Haute, Ind., where manufacturing was once important?” asked William S. Swelbar, an industry expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Do we really need airports there today? Sick economies and high fuel are not going to attract airlines.”

And because fuel prices remain high, the airlines may accelerate their cuts in capacity by the end of the year once the busy summer travel period ends. In the five months through May, the latest period with available figures, 295 of 500 airports in the nation had fewer flights than in the same period last year. In 2010, 315 airports reported fewer flights than the previous year, compared with 414 in 2009.

Nearly 200 airports, most of them tiny and many in remote places, have lost air service entirely since 2008.

“Airlines have made a deliberate decision to forgo certain markets,” said Sunil Harman, who was recently appointed aviation director of the Tallahassee Regional Airport after 17 years as the director of planning for Miami International Airport. “Their new business model is leaving communities disenfranchised and disconnected from the global marketplace.”

Spencer Dickerson, the senior executive vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives, said airline cutbacks were a major challenge. “But in the end, the bottom line is the marketplace,” he said. “If the passengers aren’t there, it’s really hard for the airlines to justify the service.”

Smaller airports may continue to lose service in coming years, while the biggest hubs will become more crowded. The Federal Aviation Administration expects 550 million more passengers to be flying in 2031 than in 2010. It expects the biggest growth will be in the nation’s top hubs.

While there are some broad trends behind the cuts in air service, there are also a variety of explanations of why some airports experienced deeper cuts than others. After Delta Air Lines shut down its hub in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2009, departures dropped, falling to 200 flights a day in June from a peak of 670 five years ago. The airport now serves 55 cities, down from over 130, and has only one international destination, Paris.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=c7207303ba01cb16c0ef1226f3e6d189

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