Why Airlines Might Abandon Your City

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Nightmare Scenario #1: You've got your briefcase in hand, boarding pass in pocket, and your carry-on rolling behind you. You head to the airport with confidence. Except — there are no planes there.

Sound crazy? Keep reading.

Nightmare Scenario #2: You jump in a cab, heading to the airport; you know your airline is there, so no worries about any missing planes. The only problem is, your cab ride to the nearest airport with flights takes four hours.

Impossible? Well, in today's environment, it could happen. Airlines are bailing out of certain cities and routes. Your city could be next.

Today's environment is key here: We have a stumbling economy (okay, it occasionally trips and falls, too); currency is upside down (great for the Brits who come to visit — not so great for the rest of us because, yes, you can pay $9 for a cup of coffee in London); and let's not forget those killer jet fuel costs. Go ahead, call this a toxic environment; few in the airline industry will disagree.

What the airlines are doing to stay "aflight" is raising prices and cutting back flights to make sure those price hikes stick. You know all about the raising-prices-and-fees part (American Airlines was the final airline to announce $25 to check a second bag); but what might be more nefarious for many travelers, especially those in smaller cities with regional airports, is what one airline analyst tagged as an inevitable "mother of all capacity cuts" that will occur as legacy airlines begin to merge.

Deciding where to cut routes and cities is fairly easy; airline bean-counters simply sort their city-pair spreadsheets by profitability, and those at the bottom are first on the hit list. Naturally, they look at the number of passengers who travel in and out of the cities in question (although, interestingly enough, if there are too few passengers, smaller airlines may qualify for federal subsidies — during 2006, for example, Department of Transportation figures indicate subsidized Big Sky Airlines averaged just two passengers a day on its Lewiston to Billings, Mont., route). Unfortunately, even those subsidies weren't enough to keep Big Sky from going bust.

Another factor: Do people in your town consider their passport to be just as important as a driver's license? In other words, does your city have potential outbound international travelers, or whatever it takes to attract international passengers?

This is important because, for a lot of the airlines, international travel is where the money is. Delta Airlines, for example, has dropped a number of cities in recent months (including Islip, N.Y.; Bellingham, Wash.; Fargo, N.D., and Atlantic City, N.J.), and has made it clear their future expansion efforts will be overseas.

How else to determine if your city is at risk of airline deprivation? Easy. One or more of your city's airlines goes bankrupt. We've seen a lot of this lately, with the death of Aloha, Skybus, ATA and more. Now, if this does happen in your stomping grounds, maybe another airline will come in and take over. Or, more likely in this environment, they won't. Remember, those "lower cost" airlines that would have eagerly gobbled up the leavings of a legacy carrier in past years, now face the same hard issues as the big boys. Maybe to a lesser degree, but all the airlines are feeling that pinch.

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