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Business Travelers Using Fewer Short-Haul Flights

Monday, April 04, 2011 - 10:04 AM

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) The number of short haul flights has declined 25 percent in the past five years due in part to higher fuel prices and increasing airport fees, leaving business travelers with fewer options. These frequent fliers are turning to other modes of transportation for trips shorter than 500 miles.

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Neil Shah used to fly eight to 15 times a month as a management consultant, but he started to feel it wasn't the best use of his time. "Getting to the airport, waiting in the security lines, the potential for delay," he said, all add up to make flying less convenient on shorter trips. From Boston to New York in particular, Shah said, he started to take the train more often because of amenities like on-board WiFi, and hassle-free last minute ticketing.

"If all things were equal, my preference would be to fly." He said he likes the affinity programs offered by airlines including frequent flier miles. "However, all of the other things have accumulated that make other means of travel just more convenient," he said.

For one, business travelers need flexibility more than other fliers. They want to be able to show up at the airport at the last minute at get right on a plane, according to Scott Gibson of ICF Skyworks, an airline advisory firm. If a meeting is canceled, or runs late, business travelers want to be able to head to the airport as soon as they can and find a flight on their timetable, not the airline's.

"So what we now find is: choice, which is really important for business travelers, is gone. So you end up sitting at airports where you used to be able to have a flight literally every hour in a lot of markets," said Gibson.

There are just fewer flights available on these short haul markets. The trend has been happening for decades, Gibson says, though a Transportation Nation analysis of Department of Transportation data show it has grown especially acute in the last half-decade. (See charts above.)

One factor is cost-per-flight. "A lot of the fuel burn is in takeoff and landing," Gibson explained. "The airplane is really efficient when it's up high in the air. And so as fuel costs have gone up, it actually impacts short-haul flights as a percent of the airfare more than it impacts long-haul flying." He added that per-passenger fees charged by airports are also increasing, often to pay for swanky redesigned terminals. So if it costs an airline an extra $25 per person per flight, that might not matter that much on a transatlantic flight, but for a trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas that could be a big percentage of the ticket cost.

In response to these cost trends, airlines have cut back on the number of flights they operate each day on short-hop routes. In some cases though, carriers are compensating by using bigger airplanes, so the net number of seats could remain the same, or even increase on some routes, while the scheduling options are curtailed.

More people are flying, but business traveler just are not flying last minute short distances as often as they used to, data show and experts like Gibson confirm.

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