Airport Nightmare: Flight Schedule Cutbacks

Ah, New York in winter. It can be so beautiful, or it can be less than delightful. Remember how actress Tallulah Bankhead once famously described herself as being "pure as the driven slush"? That might suffice as a description for the Big Apple on ice. And when that's the case, time to head south for the season.

Only the snowbirds won't have it so easy this year. Starting in earnest this month, nonstop flights between New York and 25 domestic and international cities will disappear and service to an additional 55 cities will be sharply curtailed. That means no direct flights to Bangkok, Bologna or Bucharest. But let's talk Tucson.

Say you're in Queens and you want to escape to Tucson, Ariz., this winter. Continental used to have direct flights there and so did JetBlue -- not anymore. I'm not saying you can't get to Tucson. You just have to go miles out of your way -- through, say, Chicago or Dallas -- then hang around in airports for hours. Slowly it dawns on you: You could have flown to Paris more quickly.


And what about popular destinations like Orlando or Las Vegas? Well, by the end of this year, Orlando will see about 12 percent fewer flights. As for Las Vegas, Southwest announced it'll cut back Vegas departures by an even dozen and US Airways has already cut multiple dozens of flights. A year ago, US Airways had 141 departures to and from Vegas' McCarran airport but by the end of the year that figure will be very close to half that.

These kinds of cutbacks (or fear of such cutbacks) have prompted some smaller facilities to get creative.

Kansas City's airport is trying to lure customers with offers of free parking for a day (for a limited time, anyway), and Mobile Regional Airport in Alabama has started a "points" program where awarded points can be used for VIP lounge passes, cruise discounts, that sort of thing.

Orlando International doesn't have to make such gestures; despite airline cutbacks, it's still one of the busier airports in the nation and it can still pull a rabbit out of its hat every now and then -- like the announcement that Brazil's largest airline, TAM, will begin daily service from Sao Paulo to Orlando later this year. And, as the airport officials like to point out, despite the cutbacks (which include direct service to eight smaller cities like Allentown, Pa.,) the surviving flights will still have enough seats available to accommodate all the fly-in visitors that arrived last year -- more than 36 million -- and then some.

Still, Orlando's tourist officials keep using the term "cautiously optimistic" about whether the year's fly-in tourist figure will be met or exceeded this year, and there are some worrisome signs: For example, the proprietor of a small, family-owned motel reportedly said his business has plummeted 60 percent this year. And the people at the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau say they know there are a few "pockets" of problems out there, which is why the bureau's Danielle Saba Courtenay says it is launching its largest fall media advertising campaign ever -- one that's three times as large as any the bureau has done before.

And what are they doing in Vegas in response to these cutbacks? Expanding the airport. Which is more than a bit surprising, considering that during the first four months of this year, money coming in from casinos took a sharp dip. Gaming revenues were down by 2.6 percent and room rates were down 4 percent. Even more interesting to me are the fly-in stats: Total passenger traffic this July was a little more than 3.9 million, compared to nearly 4.3 million in July of last year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the airlines are not thrilled about a proposal to expand McCarran -- a $1.8 billion expansion plan that Vegas officials are convinced is needed. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has called airports and expansions "monuments" to communities that the airlines wind up paying for. Well, he's close -- you pay for the airport/expansion, via passenger facility charges collected on behalf of the airport along with higher landing fees paid by airlines, which get passed on through higher ticket prices. I bet I know what you're thinking: just what we need -- another new fee.

So where does that leave us? Fewer flights, more packed planes, destinations that are harder and/or longer to get to -- and a certain level of misery for the folks downstream who run the motels and cafes that may take a hit as airlines tighten capacity.

I have two quick pieces of advice for travelers. First, shop earlier; the planes will fill up faster. This is especially important for you snowbirds -- if you want to get out of the cold this winter, start looking at airfares now. And second, OK, you've got your tickets -- now keep checking with the airline to make sure your carrier doesn't decide to drop your route.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.