Flight Blog

Jul 01 2008 BTC Boloney BY sgf-adminTAGS Boloney


We've received several inquiries about a report issued a week or two ago by the Business Travel Coalition. The report is long on sensationalism and short on facts. Here’s a quote: “Not only are U.S. airlines and their passengers facing their darkest future, but fast-approaching airline liquidations will cripple the U.S. economy that depends on affordable, frequent intercity air transportation.”

Notice it says these things will  happen—not that they might  happen. But wait, it gets worse. The report comes with a list called, “At-Risk Communities for Losing Commercial Air Service.”
And guess what?
That’s right, you guessed it, Springfield is on the list. In fact, we’re the only Missouri city on the list. This fact alone proves that the BTC has neither the knowledge or expertise to make such judgments. It obviously has no hard analytical analysis of Springfield's air service. I think I can safely say that Springfield is the only major Missouri airport, that HAS NOT suffered big cuts the past few months. Kansas City has. St. Louis has. And the report somehow forgot to mention the Essential Air Service airports and their woes: Joplin, Columbia, St. Joe, et al.
Could Springfield lose some destinations? Of course it could. Are we going to lose all commercial air service (as the title of the list suggests)? Not likely.
While I can applaud the BTC's goal of raising awareness of how the airlines are/might be affected by the energy bubble, to suggest that Springfield will lose commercial air service is irresponsible and Chicken Little.

Jun 25 2008 High Fares to Texas BY sgf-adminTAGS Fares


Mike blogs these thoughts:


"I have posted a few times complaining about the cost of flying out of Springfield, but here is another example on costs. Short notice flight to San Antonio; Leave 6/30 return 7/1. Out of Springfield: $1152! Out of XNA (NW Arkansas):401. I know that planning out 3 weeks will get me the cheapest air fare, but why can other airports get reasonable fares (actually great fares for short notice trips) and SGF does not? It just does not make sense. I would not consider travel to another airport if our local fare was in the $600-$700. Here is hoping the new terminal will bring our fares inline...."


I feel your pain. Why such a difference? Well, there are those reasons that I've blogged about several times:


  • Supply and demand; ticket prices are higher in smaller markets (smaller supply of seats) and lower in bigger markets (bigger supply of seats). The NW Arkansas airport is bigger than us.
  • The longer you wait to book, the smaller the supply of seats, the higher the fare.

Those are some of the usual reasons. But in this case there's another factor: competition. Think about our situation here in Springfield—American has a monopoly on service going to a southern hub. But the NW Arkansas airport has three (!) airlines flying to southern hubs. Besides American service to Dallas, Continental and Delta provide service to Houston. We sort of have a similar situation here with both Uniited and American flying to Chicago—it's the reason why you can often find United fare to Chicago for less than $200 (I just saw United fare from here to Chicago for $150 roundtrip; flying this weekend.)


Well, we've finally reached the tipping point when it comes to fares in Springfield—in the past two months Springfield customers have started to push back. They're flying less. Our May total passenger numbers were down 16 percent. This follows a decline in April of 13 percent. We haven't seen two consecutive months of double digit declines since 2001—in the aftermath of September 11. This time the decline is the result of high fares—fares driven up by the high cost of a barrel of oil. In the past year alone, the price of jet fuel has risen 80 percent. As a result, in the first quarter alone, the airlines raised the cost of fares nationwide ten to thirteen percent. It’s expected fares will go up another ten to twenty percent---just to cover the cost of fuel. That’s the cost of fuel at current prices. What will the rest of the year bring? If energy prices continue to rise—and even if they stay where they are—here’s what to expect:


  • Commercial airline service in the United States will be cut 20 percent. That will affect us, but we don't know how much.
  • Many industry analysts expect to see several of the big airlines in bankruptcy by the end of the year…
  • We can expect to see more monthly declines in passenger numbers. If those numbers get bad enough we could lose destinations.

In conclusion… It’s abundantly obvious that the airlines have reached the tipping point when it comes to fares---fewer people are flying. And they (the airlines) really don't have a plan to deal with oil at $135 a barrel. The government doesn’t seem to have a plan to deal with it either. 


Bad news for our friends in Joplin...


The Joplin Globe reports, "A disruption in commercial air service already was on the horizon for the Joplin Regional Airport, but an announcement Monday seemed to put its scope more in question. City officials disclosed that the airline that recently was awarded the Joplin contract has backed out of the agreement."


Air service in Joplin has been subsidized by the federal government under a program called Essential Air Service. Problem is, the airline economy is so bad, even a subsidy won't keep service in many small markets.


Airlines cut service left and right. Fuel prices rise. Fares go up. Airlines add another passenger fee; customers scream bloody murder. Amid the uproar are persistent questions—here’s an example from Ryan:


“With the airlines all cutting capacity and pulling flights off the market, won't that raise fares? What's going to happen to Springfield-Branson; the fares are already high, how much higher can they go before people stop flying?”


Good questions. Let’s answer them by getting some perspective…


You’re hearing a lot about capacity cuts. They’re portrayed in most media reports as something new. In reality, airlines have been making capacity cuts since the first quarter of 2006. In 2005 fares were at historic lows (when adjusted for inflation). Cutting the supply of seats made fares go up. Take a look at this graph. It plots our number of flights for the past three years; flight numbers are on the vertical axis.



We were flush with flights in 2005. Then in 2006 we had seven months with double digit flight cuts. We finished 2006 with an overall decline of 25-percent! But guess what? Our 2006 enplanements (people getting on an airplane) were down just 2-percent. So how does that jive? In 2005 the airlines had too many seats in the market—more than they could sell. By tightening up supply, they were able to raise fares. And people kept flying (mostly). This is the situation we’ve been in since the first quarter of 2006.


What has changed in the past few months is the huge jump in fuel prices. The airlines could respond by cutting our flights more—they could even eliminate a destination. We all have some understanding of why that might happen. Here are some of the reasons why it might not:


  • The Springfield-Branson air market is robust—meaning that the airlines haven’t had a problem filling seats in the market; our passenger enplanement numbers have grown 25% since 1999.
  • Our 2007 leakage study shows our airport has seen an 18 percent decline in the number of customers leaving the market to fly from other airports. As the report put it, “Airlines generally prefer existing strong capture rates rather than the potential to recapture traffic with new service." This report was handed to each of our airlines in February.
  • Our airport offers every airline the option of using airport employees (meaning City of Springfield employees) to run their local operations. We provide the services for considerably less cost than airline employees. We were one of the first airports to provide this option to the airlines. We currently provide Delta/Comair with partial, behind the scenes service. We provide Allegiant with EVERYTHING: loading and unloading the plane; servicing the lavatories, putting passengers on and off the plane. When you step up to the Allegiant ticket counter, you’re talking to a City of Springfield employee. Our abilities and reputation are outstanding. In summary: we help airlines improve efficiencies, customer service and the bottom line.
  • Our airline fees are cheap. The landing fee here is $1.10 per thousand pounds. The lease rate for exclusive use space is $33 a square foot, per year. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again—these rates are dirt cheap. It's one of the reasons why we have such good service for a small market. The Federal Aviation Administration has told us that we ought to raise rates. We've respectfully declined…

But wait, there’s more… We’re in the geographic sweet spot—Springfield is less than 600 miles from the nine destinations serviced by regional jets (all distances in nautical miles):


  • Denver: 567
  • Dallas: 315
  • Minneapolis: 466
  • Memphis: 203
  • Atlanta: 480
  • Detroit: 564
  • St. Louis: 168
  • Chicago: 381
  • Cincinnati: 431

If these distances were 800 miles or more, we’d be in a pickle. That sort of mileage, combined with the price of fuel, makes it difficult for a regional jet to make money. But with a trip of 500 miles or less, it’s much easier for the regional jet to make money. Bottom line: in the airline quest to reduce service, our routes are not low hanging fruit.


Having said all that, I don’t want to mislead anyone. Even with all our strong points, and with everything we do to attract and keep airlines, I think we’ll be lucky if we get through the year without service cuts. And yes, I think we could lose destinations.


Ryan wondered how high fares can get before people stop flying…


That’s the question the airlines are wrestling with. They don’t know the answer. It’s a precarious balancing act. The only thing I know for sure is that it’s going to be a long summer…we’re going to find out just how strong our market is.